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Cairo's 70,000 traditional rubbish collectors, or Zabbaleen - members of the 6m strong Christian Coptic minority - were something of a paragon which had been working for sixty years. They did an excellent job of processing waste, trucking refuse for small payments or free of charge from the 20m population of the city's tenements to the half-dozen settlements that ringed the city, carefully sifting out and selling recyclable glass, paper and plastic, and putrescibles which were fed to 250,000 pigs, which were eventually harvested as bacon. Although pork is forbidden to the country's 80m Muslim majority.

In 2009, in response to the threat of swine flu, Egypt's government decreed that the pigs, perhaps 250,000 of them, must go, which resulted in street protests by the Zabbareens, eventually quelled when backed by riot police and promising compensation. The pigs were systematically hauled off for slaughter, a process that took several months.

With no cases of swine flu reported in Egypt, officials from both the UN and the World Health Organisation condemned Egypt's porcicide as a drastic overreaction. Some disgruntled Copts, who have long complained of discrimination said the move unfairly targeted them. Others, noting that Egypt's minister of health consulted Coptic clergy before announcing the cull, saw it as a plot by wealthy businessmen to uproot the Zabbaleen and seize their valuable land on the edge of the city. Still more rumours explain the government's swinophobia as a ploy to distract attention from other failings, such as not paying a promised salary bonus.

Most Egyptians seemed relieved. While Muslims shun pigs as ritually unclean, many Copts also fear them as disease-carriers, with panic over swine flu heightened as Egypt had suffered at least 26 deaths from avian flu since 2006, the most in any country outside Asia. Besides, the crowded pig pens, surrounded by mounds of self-combusting biodegradable slime and hemmed in by dense human settlement, were a stinky eyesore. But the question no one seemed to ask was, if pigs were no longer there to munch away at them, where would Cairo's giant piles of leftovers go? They tried goats which did not seem to like the rotting food much, and some entreprising young Zabbareens have built small methane digestors used to produce gas for cooking and electricity generation.

In 2005, Wael Salah Fahmi, a professor of city design at Helwan University in Cairo wrote, 'The Zabbaleen have created what is probably one of the world's best, most efficient resource recovery and waste recycling systems. Their method is efficient - it puts everything to a good use.' However, there are also problems with it. One problem is that the Zabbaleen have not been able to keep up with Cairo's growth. Beginning in the 1970s, Cairo started growing very fast. Today it is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa. Because Cairo grew so fast, the Zabbaleen were not able to meet all the city's garbage collection needs. Instead, the government decided to pay private European companies to manage waste in parts of the city. These companies now manage one third of Cairo's waste. However, many people do not like the new companies. The companies cost more than the Zabbaleen and they recycle less.

However, the biggest problem with the Zabbaleen method is the living conditions that it produces. While the Zabbaleen do support themselves, they are still very poor. They also suffer from many diseases caused by working and living with garbage. And since the families usually work together, children do not always attend school. In the 1970s, Sister Emmanuelle, a French nun, visited the Zabbaleen communities of Cairo. She recognized a need to improve the living conditions of the Zabbaleen. She also recognized the importance of what the Zabbaleen did for the people of Cairo and the environment. For twenty years, Sister Emmanuelle lived among the Zabbaleen. During that time, she started an organization called the Association for the Protection of the Environment or APE which helps the Zabbaleen improve their lives by doing what they do best - recycling. APE works with other investment groups too. Together, they have started recycling schools in the Zabbaleen communities. These schools teach the Zabbaleen even more methods of recycling. They teach the Zabbaleen to use machines which break down plastic. They provide training in how to weave material scraps found in the garbage. From these scraps the students can make rugs and blankets to sell. The school also teaches students how to recycle paper to make cards and other paper goods. These goods can also be sold. The schools also teach basic reading skills, health education, arts and even computer training. Students, like Magdi, use computers to record how many bottles they recycle. These students also learn many business skills that help them be more productive.

With the help of APE, the Zabbaleen are improving their lives. They are also beginning to teach their good recycling methods to students in other countries. And, cities like Manila and Bombay are now using the Zabbaleen method of waste management. Today, cities are growing faster than ever. This means that waste in cities is also produced faster. However, modern methods of waste management may not be the best answer to the growing waste. Instead, cities all over the world can learn from the Zabbaleen's method. It is a method which makes money, manages waste and still cares for the world's environment.

In a double whammy, the Egyptian Government opened its garbage industry to foreign competition. Italian and Spanish companies have taken over the roots once controlled by the Zabaleen, depriving them of the household fees they receive to collect the waste. This forced the Zabaleen to work either as labourers on a smaller wage or scavenge for garbage before the foreign trucks got to it. The key difference with the multinational contractors is that instead of large-scale recycling, most of their rubbish is landfilled at a tip north of the city.

The Zabaleen would have turned 80 per cent of this into a valued commodity - paper, plastic or glass - but the foreign companies only have to recycle about 20 per cent and the rest goes into landfill. The Zabaleen say the loss of income from garbage collection has had a big impact on their lives. Many families can no longer send their kids to school and doctors report a drop in nutrition and health standards.

One school, though, has found a solution. It's a special recycling school partly funded by aid. The school children collect empty bottles for shampoos like Pert and Pantene. The shampoo company Proctor and Gamble then pays the school $30,000 to shred the bottles. It's meant to curb a rampant trade in fake shampoo. The shredded bottles are then sold to pay the teacher's wages. It's a form of child labour that other shampoo companies like Unilever and Johnsons have shunned but the Zabaleen believe there's no other way. Without this work, these children could no longer go to school. This is the only way they can afford an education. Even the school lessons revolve around waste. Some of the first words these kids learn are the names of shampoos and they're hoping the maths learnt today will help them bid for the garbage contracts when they expire in seven years.

Until then, the Zabaleen will continue to eke out a living from recycling whatever waste they can still get their hands on.

ID : (57419)
Date Created : 02 February 2011 11:53:01 AM
Date Modified : 02 February 2011 11:53:04 AM

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