Girgis is one of the Zabaleen (Arabic for “garbage people”), Cairo’s army of informal workers that collects refuse for conversion into valuable raw materials, the Guardian reported.
Girgis lives with his family in the suburb of Manshiyet Nasr, nicknamed “Garbage City”, which is home to Egypt’s largest and most influential Zabaleen community.
Egypt generates about 80 million tons of solid rubbish annually, according to government figures. The Zabaleen have supplemented the state’s woefully inadequate waste infrastructure for seven decades. Each morning, their collectors fan out across Cairo, bringing home mountains of rubbish for women and children to sort through.
In recent years, startup companies have begun offering local residents money for sorted recyclable materials. Mina Bahr, who founded RecycoLife in 2015, advertises household collections on social media and then sends workers to buy valuable waste such as plastics and aluminum. Bahr says he incentivizes residents to get involved because he lacks the Zabaleen’s manpower for sifting through rubbish.
But RecycoLife’s business model conflicts with that of the Zabaleen’s. “The Zabaleen want waste for free because [they see it as] their right,” Bahr said.
According to Bahr, trouble began when the Zabaleen visited districts where RecycoLife had already bought waste from households. He received a menacing phone call soon after ordering him to shut down his company immediately. His collectors have been violently attacked on several occasions while working, he says.
Startups are now finding ways to access valuable waste without incurring the Zabaleen’s wrath. RecycoLife wants to collect refuse from other Egyptian cities, beyond the reach of Cairo’s Zabaleen. Another company reaches customers through a mobile app, allowing it to organize residential collections discreetly.
For others, the friction with the Zabaleen proved too much. Several people spoke of an Egyptian entrepreneur who fled the country after death threats and set up his recycling business in Germany.
Among the Zabaleen, opinion is divided about whether motivating Cairenes to sort recycling would benefit their communities. Ezzat Naem Guindy, a Garbage City resident who runs Spirit of Youth Association, a local NGO, believes a strong minority would prefer to collect waste that has been segregated.
Such a change could slash daily sorting times in half, while also improving community health standards in Zabaleen areas. Sorters face lacerations and heightened exposure to viruses like hepatitis C, which is often contracted from syringes lurking in mixed rubbish.
The counter-argument is based on defending the Zabaleen’s market share against the incomers. “Most Zabaleen are against garbage segregation,” said Guindy. “If the garbage is segregated at [apartment buildings], the doorman or the guards will see [its] value.”
Both sides see the potential for peaceful coexistence. Guindy points out that many of the recycling startups focus on commercial waste, leaving much of the residential waste to the Zabaleen. In any event, he estimates that the Zabaleen collect about 63 percent of Greater Cairo’s rubbish, leaving room for startups to operate.
Recycling entrepreneurs say they are providing a different service to the Zabaleen. “We want the Zabaleen to have a profit, but not [the whole] market,” says Bahr. While he admits no one can match the Zabaleen’s prowess at gathering waste from Cairo’s labyrinth of alleys and apartment complexes, he says the startups have better quality processing technology.
Many Zabaleen fear that if Egyptians start sorting their recycling en masse, any number of opportunists will find it much easier to encroach upon their livelihood. Even now, the lifelong collector Girgis fights all comers, from doormen to scavengers to other Zabaleen, for a bag of recyclable waste. His justification is straightforward: “If you do not go to work one day, someone will replace you.”