Another Man’s Gold

We were definitely lost. We had been driving around the Cairo neighborhood for about twenty minutes, barely sliding past other cars on crooked streets not meant to hold two lanes of traffic. At least we knew that we were in the right place. There was trash everywhere. Not strewn about the streets haphazardly, but stuffed in massive sacks and piled ten feet high on trucks or stacked in warehouses. Every doorway seemed to lead to a room filled with trash; either newly arrived or in the process of being sorted and separated.

This was “Garbage City”, one of the communities of zaballeen, or garbage people, and we had come for a tour by a local. After many concerned phone calls and confused directions, we eventually met our guide Hanna. He had grown up here and started by telling us how everything began.

The community started with a couple of poor farming families who saw that they could make a living by collecting a portion of Cairo’s garbage and recycling it. They went out at night with donkey carts, hauling the garbage back to their homes for processing. Soon they invited other family members, slowly bought trucks and after thirty years the fledgling communities around Cairo had grown to host over 60,000 people who have set up their own power and water lines and live in multistory concrete buildings.

Recently featured in an award winning documentary, Garbage Dreams, this vibrant community is now one of several that lives off recycling the 14,000 tons of garbage produced by Cairo every day. Hanna estimates that every ton of garbage supports about seven jobs: two to pick it up, three to sort it and two more to process the materials before they are resold.

What makes these communities stand out is that they are able to recycle about 80% of the garbage that they collect, more than triple the rate of most Western companies! Plastics, paper, aluminum cans, pipes, bags, just about everything is sorted and either reprocessed into another usable material or resold to factories around Cairo.

In the past, organic waste was fed to the community’s large pig population, which would then be sold for a profit. As Muslims are religiously forbidden from breeding or eating pigs, the zaballeen, who are 90% Coptic Christians, have been given a largely uncontested spot as the city’s garbage collectors. This was a major part of their livelihood. All this changed in April 2009 however, when the Egyptian Parliament ordered the culling of over 300,000 pigs amidst fears of the H1N1 virus. This decision was a huge financial blow to the zaballeen and largely criticized in the international community, as there was general agreement that pigs do not transmit H1N1.

Despite this setback, the zeballeen continue their work. We were first shown to a center that trains the women of the neighborhood how to make paper and rugs from recycled materials. I was under the apparently naive impression that you could only use old paper to make new paper, but it soon became clear that is not the case, as jeans and even onions were added into the mix to give the new paper a unique texture and color. The result is beautiful handmade cards, bags, books and lampshades, some pressed with flowers and decorated as well.

For the cloth, rugs are made out of discarded clothing on huge looms and women are also trained to sew beautiful quilts from other fabric, work they can do at home, allowing them to make an income while still watching their children. Similar schools exist for boys as well, both providing a recycling based-income and tangible skills for those living in the neighborhood.

Hanna then took us to the mountain churches, which are literally carved out of the rock, the largest of which can hold over 10,000 people. Along the walls of the cliff are various pictures and writings chiseled into the rock face by one dedicated Polish sculptor who has worked there for the past twenty-five years!

Most interesting of all however, were the projects Hanna himself was working on. Although he had grown up sorting and cleaning trash that was brought in, he had the opportunity to work with an inspired American PhD student who dreamt of bringing solar power and biogas to Garbage City. Working together Hanna and Thomas started to build small systems out of the recycled material that could provide nearly free hot water and natural cooking gas to the receiving family.

Although since Thomas moved to Germany for a teaching job, Hanna has remained inspired. He took us up to his roof where he had installed a solar water heater and a biogas drum that used organic waste from his house and produces enough methane in a day to fuel a standard stove for two hours! He pointed out the other installations across the neighborhood and told us his dream to make Garbage City “a model for green energy in Egypt.”

The example set by Garbage City is even more incredible when we look closer at what happens in our own borders. New York City produces about four pounds of waste per person per day, more than any other city in the world. This comes out to over 16,000 tons per day, more than Cairo, which is twice its size! And yet the US itself only recycles about 11% of its waste, preferring to send most of it to landfills instead. Although it might not be easy to admit, we could learn a lot from Cairo’s zaballeen.

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