Growing up, Ezzat Naeem’s playground was a pile of shampoo bottles or a heap of paper. His street was lined with rotting fruit peels and moldy bread. Pigs ran free, grazing on the littered streets, and every day donkey carts brought in tons of garbage from all over Cairo. Born into the zabaleen, Egypt’s “trash people,” he never attended school. Instead, Naeem learned how to spot pieces of plastic, cotton, metal and iron from the heaps of garbage his father collected in the streets of Cairo.

Naeem lives in what most of Cairo’s residents call “Garbage City,” a slum settlement only a few miles from the pyramids. Its 60,000 residents are accustomed to the air’s blanket of flies and stench. But amidst the obvious decay, the zabaleen have proven to be a hardy community of entrepreneurs. Without government support or city amenities, the zabaleen have organized into a cheap, highly efficient and organic garbage disposal service for Africa’s most populous city. “We respect what we believe in, and the local expertise of the garbage people,” Naeem says. “[The zabaleen] are the makers of solid waste management in Egypt.”

Over the last 40 years, the people of Garbage City have refined their collection and sorting methods, built their own labor-operated machines and created a system in which every man, child and woman works. The hand-sorting effort can be unhealthy, with many zabaleen suffering from hepatitis as a consequence. But it is estimated that they collect 4,500 tons of trash daily, and are able to recycle 85% of the refuse they collect — a statistic topping the best efforts of recyclers in the West.

After a failed attempt by the Egyptian government to privatize trash collection with foreign contractors, and a controversial decision to destroy the zabaleen’s pig herd to contain the spread of H1N1, the zabaleen are beginning to formalize one of the most profitable businesses in the country. “Our problem as garbage collectors is we love to be informal,” Naeem notes. “Any group of uneducated people is afraid of change, rules, law and the government. We came from Upper Egypt where we kept to ourselves, and when we got here, we shut ourselves out even more.”

Finding a Permanent Home

Naeem’s grandfather was one of the first to migrate from Aswan north to Cairo looking for work. After failing to find a good-paying job, he and others from his native town began to raise pigs and goats on heaps of trash on the outskirts of Cairo. As squatters, they had no legal hold to the land and were evicted and resettled half a dozen times. All the while, they lived off the trash of the city. “During this time, the government wasn’t paying attention to the waste problem in the city,” Naeem states. “They only had someone sweeping the streets and taking it to a national landfill. So the zabaleen took over.”

By 1976, the zabaleen had found their permanent home in the valley of Mansheyat Nasser. More space meant the zabaleen were able to expand their business. They contracted with schools, hotels and businesses to collect their trash. Some even contracted with hospitals. Throughout the 1980s, Garbage City began to attract media attention, with many outlets circulating pictures of children sitting on heaps of garbage. But international humanitarian organizations saw that the zabaleen were an entrepreneurial community struggling to survive in the informal sector of Egyptian business.

According to Alia El Mahdi, dean of faculty of economics and political science at Cairo University, almost 82% of Egypt’s small business and enterprise section is made up of informal ventures. In turn, roughly 90% of funding for Egypt’s informal business sector comes from non-governmental organizations. “It is rather simple,” she notes. “The informal medium and small enterprises gain more benefits by working informally than by operating formally. The cost of formality is relatively high for them.”

An Organized Place

Isaac Mikhail, 57, sits in his office at the Association for the Protection of the Environment, which overlooks a bank of plastic cleaning and recycling machines. Burlap sacks filled with shredded and recycled plastic line the brick wall. Pick-up trucks drive in and out, dropping off the day’s collection and picking up the finished product. Over the course of an hour, there is nonstop traffic in Mikhail’s office. Someone has lost their national ID and needs help with the paperwork. Another worker needs a small loan for a family emergency. Mikhail is the godfather of Garbage City, and he wants to see his family grow. “In 1986 we were given three plastic crushers and two shredders,” he points out. “When we gave the machines to the people to own and they made money, everyone started innovating. Suddenly, we weren’t just sorting. Everyone was working in the recycling process.”

Today, Garbage City is still a dump. Piles of trash line the narrow streets, reaching the second and even third stories of buildings. But once one is accustomed to the smell, it is plain to see that Garbage City is well-organized. The refuse is separated into piles of metals, plastics, organic waste and even electronic waste. Pickup trucks are constantly driving in and out of Mansheyat Nasser, carrying loads of garbage. The business cycle in Garbage City is simple. The collectors, who are always men, go door-to-door in the streets of Cairo. They have set up an intricate route system all over the city, and each family is responsible for their share of its neighborhoods. Some collectors bring their trash back home, where the women and children sort it and sell it to merchants. Others dump their day’s haul in a community collection area for a small sum. There, families that don’t have a collector can purchase the garbage for sorting.

The garbage is then displayed in the front of houses for merchants. The raw material is cleaned and shredded, then sold to a recycling facility. There, seven men ranging in age from teenagers to their late 50s purify plastic, melt it and turn it into shreds for sale. Romani Magdy, 24, operates the purifying and shredding machine. He gets the plastic in 50 kilogram sacks, cut into small, clean pieces. The plastic is run through the machine, where it is heated, purified and made into little pellets. The sacks are then refilled with the recycled plastic. All the while, Magdy rushes from one end of the 12-foot long machine to the other, making sure the temperature is right, that there are no knots in the plastic and that nothing gets clogged. “These machines need constant supervision,” he says. “You have to stand next to them and make sure everything is running smoothly.”

For the past year, Magdy has been working 12 hours a day, alternating weekly between night and day shifts. His expertise with the machine comes from his time at the Recycling School for Boys, founded by Naeem’s Spirit of Youth Foundation. There, Magdy was taught recycling, computer and mathematics skills. He was one of the first to attend the school and was part of an initiative with U.S.-based Proctor & Gamble to collect their shampoo bottles and recycle them. “We created this machine on a smaller scale from recyclable material at the school,” he notes. “When I finished my program, I helped build it here.” Today, there are five machines like the one Magdy operates in Garbage City, and they each cost roughly US$53,000. The machine can output hundreds of tons of plastic a day, which is ultimately sold to firms that use it to make hangers and plastic chairs, or to foreign exporters who sell it to China and Belgium.

Inefficient Foreign Collectors

Without licensing, registration and recognition by the government, the people of Garbage City have continued to live with insecurity. In 2000, foreign companies contracted by the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs were given licenses and multi-million dollar deals to collect Cairo’s trash. Hanna Fathy, 32, says the foreign contracts created one of the most devastating economic hurdles for his family, and the city as a whole. The companies only hired literate workers, he states, and the pay was far below what residents earned collecting their own garbage. “Here in Garbage City, the whole family works,” he adds. “Imagine that suddenly only one person is employed and supporting the rest. Whereas once each person made US$211 a month, now only the men have the opportunity to make no more than US$131 each.”

While some Garbage City residents donned the foreign companies’ green and yellow jumpsuits, most couldn’t afford the pay cut. Many took to dumpster diving, moving the sorting process to the streets of Cairo. They picked out only the material they could use and profit from. They also took organic materials to feed pigs, which were the zabaleen’s source of saving. But last year’s pig cull due to the H1N1 — or swine flu — scare ended the need to collect organic waste, and it began to pile up on the streets. “The foreign companies brought huge trucks that would lift and dispense the bin,” Fathy points out. “The trucks were very fancy, with sweepers and street cleaners. But they couldn’t get the Egyptians … used to taking out their trash. They also couldn’t get the big trucks into small streets all over Cairo.”

According to Matthew Bidwell, a professor of management at Wharton, the foreign companies proved to be inefficient collectors because they failed to hire within Egypt’s solid waste management system. “Although the external hires are typically better educated and more experienced, I don’t find them ever to be performing better than internal hires,” Bidwell says. Bringing new employees into the industry forced the foreign companies to train new employees in hard skills they had no Egyptian experience in. The foreign companies were also rejected by many Egyptians themselves, who were unwilling to pay higher garbage collection fees.

Building a Formal System

With the aim of incorporating the Garbage City community into the formal waste management industry in Egypt, Naeem’s Spirit of Youth Foundation created the Recycling School for Boys, and is now working with the zabaleen to get them licensed and contracted. “This way, we build a formal system,” notes Majd Madina, project manager with the Spirit of Youth Foundation. “This will create new job opportunities, we will recycle more and we’ll start taking care of the environment.”

According to Madina, the zabaleen have started a program called “source segregation” in conjunction with Spanish contractor, Emma. The pilot program was launched in Cairo’s affluent neighborhood of Zamalek. Residents were asked to separate organic and non-organic materials. “The garbage collector collects both bags,” Madina says. “He gives the organic material to Emma, who disposes of it, and the garbage collector takes the non-organic material for recycling. ”

The Spirit of Youth Foundation has also started licensing garbage workers all over Cairo. With the help of volunteer lawyers, they created small companies for the zabaleen, with licensed workers. “We are focusing on not saying ‘We are poor zabaleen, you need to help,'” Madina adds. “We are saying that there is a problem and to fix it, everyone needs to win. We want to show that the solid waste management system in Cairo has a problem, and here is 30 years of experience that will fix it.”