Lessons about Recycling

Film review (2009) Mai Iskander, Garbage Dreams, 2009, for the AFFR – Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam


Cairo is a city of 18 million people, which up to 2003 was able to manage its solid waste at almost zero cost to its municipal administration, thanks to the Zabbaleen. Coptic Christians, who moved from the countryside to the city after WW2, the Zabbaleen, soon specialized in garbage collection and recycling. This developed into an impressive amount of highly specialized small companies, which recycle about 80% of the garbage, a lot more than the average 20 – 30% of the western waste processing companies.
A community of about 70.000 people in total, almost one third of them live and work in Mokattam, Cairo’s largest garbage village. The Zabbaleen collect the garbage door to door in exchange for a tiny fee, transport it to their neighborhood and separate it. Initially to 16 main categories, such as paper, plastic, glass etc., each category is subsequently sorted into sub categories, which are either treated further or sold as raw material. This is the main income of the Zabbaleen, who provide raw material not only in Egypt but also to China, France and Belgium.

The Zabbaleen economy and way of life has been heavily threatened, when in 2003, Cairo’s local government decided to give annual contracts worth $50 million to two Spanish and one Italian garbage collection companies. What’s more, in the contract it was stipulated that these companies own all the garbage, even before collecting them and they would only be required to recycle 20% of the collected amount, throwing the rest away in landfills.
This is where Mai Iskander’s ‘Garbage Dreams’ (2009) starts, narrating the efforts of the Zabbaleen to react to the city’s decision and fight to protect their lives and gain recognition for their efficient and sustainable practices. We follow three young men, Adham, 17, Nabil, 18 and Osama 16 years old, who talk about their experiences and day to day lives. The presence of the foreign companies has forced people to work harder than ever in order to compete and think of ways to modernize their practices. A central figure in these efforts, as well as in the documentary, is local social worker Laila Iskander, founder of the local “Recycling School”, established to teach children how to read maps, run a business, use computers and apply safe recycling methods. All this, in an effort to convince the authorities that the Zabbaleen are an integral part of Cairo’s economy and should be legally recognized.

“What would you do with all the trash, if you were put in charge of a landfill?” a student is being asked during a field trip to the new landfills outside the city. “I would dig it all out, he replies. It’s all a gift from God, to be recycled and reused.”

The school has received a lot of attention from international organizations and the three young men are invited to a study trip in Wales, to learn about the latest recycling techniques. The students are impressed with the amount of garbage as well as with the technology and the industrial scale of waste treatment. Standing next to a conveyor belt, they notice how many pieces end up wasted because they are too small to be processed further. As they explain in front of the camera: “There is technology, but no precision!” So much for our advanced methods! Their main observation is that people sort their garbage at home. This would be something that could save them a lot of time and be only a small effort for their clients; exactly the type of knowledge they can bring back to Cairo!
The film ends with the Zabbaleen in growing desperation, still searching for solutions and proposals towards the city authorities. Osama, one of boys, has found a job in one of the multinational companies, the only job he has actually managed to keep for a long period of time. He doesn’t mind that the others call him a ‘traitor’; he feels proud to wear a uniform and ride a fancy truck. Osama is not the only Zabbaleen in that position. The foreign companies collected the trash by big trucks from centrally placed large garbage bins. This was a great nuisance for people who were used to have their garbage collected from their front doors and now, for a much larger fee, they had to look for garbage bins, sometimes located really far from their homes. Initially, this meant that people preferred to have their trash collected by the Zabbaleen, but eventually, the foreign companies realized that they had to deal with the increasing protests and attempted to subcontract the Zabbaleen, a system which soon failed due to the extremely low salaries the foreign companies offered.

However, the continued complaints have forced the authorities to admit the failure of employing the foreign companies, to grant legal status to 40 Zabbaleen companies and allow them to work in one city area as a pilot project. They rejected offering the Zabbaleen a second contract as unviable and refused to terminate the contracts with the multinationals out of fear of legal implications. Nevertheless, if the Zabbaleen succeed in their pilot, they might take over the city’s garbage collection from 2017 onwards. Even if the implementation of the pilot has been very slow and the hopes of actually getting what they were promised are faint, the Zabbaleen have meanwhile managed to expand their operations in other cities in Egypt and to run awareness campaigns about the value of waste separation and recycling in several Cairo neighbourhoods.