Zabbaleen of Cairo and the secret life of trash

Before the advent of municipal waste management, a subset of the desperately poor made a living collecting, sorting, and reselling waste. Throughout the 19th century, in cities like London and Paris, these ragpickers roamed the streets, picking up and sorting trash as they went.

The ragpickers constituted an unofficial and autonomous recycling body. They mainly look for cloth rags, since the paper industry needed them constantly. But glass bottles and scrap metal were also valuable, since they could be melted down and reused indefinitely. Even dog manure it could be sold to tanneries for leather treatment.

In Paris, the ragpickers were identifiable by their hooks, with which they picked up the garbage; the baskets in which they carried the leftovers; and the flashlights they used to navigate the dark streets, since by law they were only allowed to work at night. They lived in makeshift quarters on the outskirts of Paris.many simply sleeping on piles of straw they had collected from the streets.

And yet some found ways to beautify their humble homes. Notes by historian Alain Faure that a contemporary observer recounts rooms decorated with mosaics of broken mirrors, stuffed birds, and carefully arranged stones. Another found that the doors and walls of the ragpickers’ houses were covered with scribbled alphabets and mathematical formulas, because the children in the group, whenever they could attend school, would immediately bring what they learned to share with the group.

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This practice reflects a communal spirit that seems to have been a defining feature of ragpickers’ lives. As Faure writes,

The collective lifestyle characterized the ragpicker communities… Mutual aid was an accepted practice: “When he gets old and sick, a ragpicker doesn’t go to the hospital. His neighbors will not allow him to suffer. Rather, they help him and collect to meet his needs, enduring privations to offer him small comforts. The ragpickers’ willingness to take in stray children…reflected both an interest in extra hands for collecting and a common practice of living and working together, as well as a form of public assistance for children.

While the arrival of municipal garbage services put an end to large-scale rag collection in Paris, it remains a worldwide phenomenon among the very poor. Making a living off other people’s leftovers is the kind of forced ingenuity that can happen anywhere when people have few options. Today’s ragpickers trade more in PET plastic than in scrap linen, but some of the same issues cross continents and centuries: communities forced to survive outside of formal settlements, subjected to dangerous working conditions and extreme poverty, but at the same time characterized for mutual help. , creativity and solidarity. In the 1960s in Tokyo, for example, a collective of ragpickers known as “ant village” managed to develop from a squatter community in a public park to a neighborhood with its own apartment buildings, workshops, children’s center and community restaurant.

One of the most famous modern rag-trapping communities is made up of the Zabbaleen of Cairo. For decades, members of this coptic population they went door to door throughout the city, collecting trash and recycling up to 80 percent of what they collected. they achieved this with the help of his pigsthat sorted the waste with its snout, ate the organic waste and left behind the other potential recyclables for further processing.

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Nicholas S. Hopkins and Sohair R. Mehanna write that the relationship between the Zabbaleens and their clients could be “somewhat controversial”, with Zabbaleen collectors “resenting the effort it takes to collect the fee and residents resenting the unreliability of collectors”. Hopkins and Mehanna point out that the relationship could be even more fragile in the most impoverished sections of the city, where the poor picked up the poor’s trash. There was “a problem of human organization here that few in these urban slums seem capable of solving on their own,” they write.

Partly as an attempt to address some of the shortcomings of the existing system, Cairo chose to outsource its garbage collection to several multinational corporations in 2003. But the transition was easier said than done: The city’s narrow streets made it difficult for corporate garbage trucks to reach most residential neighborhoods, and bins began to overflow. In the meantime, cairotas they found themselves paying twice for garbage collection: once on their utility bill and once to the Zabbaleen, who actually took the garbage away.

An even bigger blow came in 2009 with the H1N1 outbreak. Panic over “swine flu” led the Egyptian government to order the slaughter of the cattle of Zabbaleen, the most essential aspect of your recycling program. This destroyed their integrated waste management system, as well as decimating their income and eliminating an essential component of their diet.

However, the Zabbaleen continue to make a living sorting and selling recyclable materials to this day. Following the failures of the municipal systems introduced after 2003, the government began to formalize Zabbaleen’s contributions to the city. providing them with uniforms and vehicles. The Zabbaleen have also entered the global market, teamed up with an Egyptian NGO to sell products made from recycled products to Europe and North America. If you’re wearing polyester right now, some part of your outfit may have once been a plastic bottle on the streets of Cairo, hand-picked and crushed into confetti to sell to the Chinese textile industry, so what you once rubbish could re-enter the stream of human use, becoming something new.

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