It was a hot summer day reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius when I visited Mokattam village (informally known as “Garbage City”) in Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district (see Fig.1). As I approached the area, the steaming scent of trash filled my nose as I made repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts to swat the flies hovering around my head.
Mokattam has over 50,000 inhabitants, most of them Coptic Christians that settled in Cairo about 70 years ago after leaving their agricultural roots in Southern Egypt . They work informally, as Cairo’s most important labor force of garbage collectors, sorters and recyclers.
An ostracized people from Cairo’s broader population, they are known as the Zabaleen, literally meaning “garbage people” in Arabic.
What is most impressive, however, is the efficiency at which they do their work: “(…) the Zabaleen, the traditional waste collectors of Cairo, have created what is arguably one of the world’s most efficient resource-recovery and waste-recycling systems” . Collecting from the heart of the city center to the greater metropolitan limits of Cairo, 4,500 tons (although other estimates go up to 9,000 tons ) of waste is brought to and processed in Mokattam village every single day, of which 80% of it is recycled and turned into sellable raw material . This is an astonishing figure when considering Europe’s 2014 recycling rates, where Germany takes the lead at 65% and the overall EU average tops out at a slim 42% (see Fig.2).
Aside from the efficiency factor, a vast and complex array challenges exist for the Zabaleen. The 7 areas of residence (Ein El Sira; Moatamadia; El Baragil; Tora; Ezbet El Nakhl; Helwan; and Muqattam) have now become contested spaces, where Cairo’s population growth and urbanization have led to a political push to displace the Zabaleen in order to gentrify the slum areas that have gained substantial real estate value over the last decades. Fahmi and Sutton (2006) assert that the city government made substantial financial contributions to livelihood development projects in the Zabaleen communities over the years, but in reference to Muqattam, this may have been part of a “(…) wider but hidden agenda involving urban redevelopment of this part of the city” . This has led to various resettlement schemes that have brought some Zabaleen communities to the outskirts of Cairo , placing them further away from the sources of trash that supply their daily bread and butter.
However, the Zabaleen are a strong and hard working community that has already surmounted previous challenges. In 2003, the then-President Hosni Mubarak made an attempt to liberalize the waste management sector by contracting out the work to multinational corporations. As this new approach required the residents of Cairo to change their sorting and disposal habits, its efficiency was compromised and became a failed project. However, it raised a multitude of questions and debates concerning the Zabaleen’ legal rights to Cairo’s trash industry. Since then, organizations such as Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) and the Spirit of Youth Foundation have made strides towards establishing formal Zabaleen trash sorting and recycling enterprises .
As I strolled through the tight alleyways with towering windowless brick buildings, children played and worked amidst the rubbish. Although some would be appalled by the filth of this precarious environment, it was an organized place where laughter and the values of hard work and solidarity still thrived. No matter the issues of legal tenure or the informal nature of their work, waste management is a critical issue for all large metropolitan areas. And as Cairo grows as Africa’s second largest capital, it is difficult to conceptualize a Cairo without the Zabaleen.
To supplement the photos above, I suggest watching Garbage Dreams (2009), a documentary following the lives of three Egyptian boys that have grown up in Mokattam village.
 Mills, D. (2013) ‘Cairo’s “Garbage City” is a slum of 50,000 people, mostly Coptic Christians whose families came to the city from farms in the south seventy years ago’, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, (235).
 Fahmi, W. S. (2005) ‘The impact of privatization of solid waste management on Zabaleen garbage collectors in Cairo’, Environment & Urbanization, 17 (2): 155.
 Guénard, M. (2013) ‘Cairo puts its faith in ragpickers to manage the city’s waste problem’, The Guardian, (London), 19 November; available online at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/19/cairo-ragpickers-zabaleen-egypt-recycling.
 Wood, E. D. (2011) ‘Garbage City: For Cairo’s Coptic Christians, the future may rise from what others discard’, The Virginia Quarterly Review, 87 (2): 7.
 Fahmi, W. S. and Sutton, K. (2006) ‘Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-national’ takeover and state relocation plans’, Habitat International, 30 (4): 809-837.
 Sutton, K. and Fahmi, W. (2010) ‘Cairo’s contested garbage: Sustainable solid waste management and the Zabaleen’s right to the city’, Sustainability, 2 (6): 1765-1783.
 University of Pennsylvania, Wharton (2010) ‘Waste not: Egypt’s “Garbage People” seek formal recognition’, Knowledge @ Wharton, 10 August; available online at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/waste-not-egypts-garbage-people-seek-formal-recognition/.