This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 of our online course.
In this eighth episode, we talk to Malcolm Williams about his recent trip to Egypt to meet the Zabbaleen community, who are now recognised as the official waste collectors of Cairo. The Zabbaleen have been recycling for over sixty years, and Malcolm gives us an insight into the incredible workflow of the Zabbaleen, the hardships they’ve endured, and the reasons for their success in maintaining such a great recycling system.
Thank you to Zero Waste Europe for making this episode possible.
Zero Waste Europe is an European initiative bringing together 20 organisations and 300 municipalities committed to work to eliminate waste in Europe. Zero Waste Europe proposes to re-design our society in a way that all superfluous waste is eliminated and everything that is produced can be re-used, repaired, composted or recycled back into the system.
EM: Just for a little background information, the Zabbaleen were originally pig farmers who went to Cairo to collect food waste – food scraps – for their pigs way back in the 1940s is that correct?
MW: Yep, the Zabbaleen are absolutely – if I’d known this I’d probably taken a plaque or a Nobel prize or something or other because they are THE recyclers; the recyclers of my dreams. In about 1944-ish, so the story goes, some of the Zabbaleen, who were pig farmers in the south of Egypt, were suffering some minor droughts and having some problems with their farming, so they moved up to the outskirts of Cairo and started collecting food waste from people by knocking on their doors and saying “can we have your food waste, please” – you know, that’s not unreasonable is it? Anyway, they did that and for five or six years they were setting up their pig farms on the outskirts of Cairo and all the rest of it.
And then in 1949, there was a severe drought in that part of Egypt and the rest of the Zabbaleen moved up to Cairo in numbers – I’m not quite sure what numbers – but they now number a hundred and seventy-five thousand or thereabouts. And whereas they were in the outskirts of Cairo when they first moved up in 1949, and knocking on doors, now they’re sort of more integral because Cairo has grown two, three, four times the size as it was in those days, so they’re in…well I wouldn’t call it the centre of the city, but sort of, certainly inside the ring-road so to speak.
EM: And they were primarily pig farmers up until recently – I know that during the swine flu epidemic all of their pigs were culled?
MW: Yes, this is…more than a sad tale. They came up and they were collecting mostly food waste to start with, as I said, but as time went on, and in the eighties – seventies/eighties – they started collecting other stuff, paper…and started selling that. In other words they became what we now know as dry recyclet collectors as well as collecting the organic, but the important thing is that they collected the organics first. And the other important thing is that they had a deal with the householder – not the local authorities, not with the government or anything – it was just: somebody came and collected your food waste every day at a certain time and they knocked on the door to get it. Because, if they hadn’t knocked on the door to get it – if, like we have here, the dry recyclet was put outside the door – then somebody else would take it, because it’s valuable.
So, that’s the situation and then when the pigs were killed three or four years back by the Mubarak government – without any compensation, you know, the government didn’t say “right, three hundred thousand pigs at so-many dollars a pig, distribute this amongst yourselves”, they just killed the pigs. And they more than halved the income of the Zabbaleen. We had various reports, up to ninety percent of incomes being lost. Because they used to actually eat about twenty percent, and then they would sell the other eighty percent into market.
EM: That’s absolutely horrendous treatment, and they…what are they doing now, are they still recycling?
MW: Yeah, it’s been a bit of a problem for the last three or four years, which is one of the reasons why I think anybody who lives in Cairo will say the situation is getting worse and worse, because since the pigs were slaughtered – before the pigs were slaughtered actually, the Cairo authorities actually called in some big, sort of, international waste companies to do the (inverted commas) “waste contract”. And those big companies, basically, found that they couldn’t actually access the fourteen thousand tonnes of material that arise in Cairo every day because the Zabbaleen have got it, they collected it. From five o’clock in the morning they’re out there until about midday collecting the stuff, and bringing it back to their homes where they sort it out, reprocess it, bulk it and sell it.
So, the figures vary a little bit, but before the pigs were slaughtered they were actually eleven of the fourteen thousand tonnes that were arising, and all of that was actually recycled or reprocessed because the pigs were eating all the food waste. And so that was eighty – that’s an eighty percent recycling rate going back three or four years. Now, that would have put them in the lead in the world as far as recycling rates were concerned. And they did it because they knocked on doors to get it, you know? So it’s the ultimate kerbside, you know, collection system with a sorting at the door, sort of thing.
EM: That’s amazing, and they’re not getting paid for their service at all?
MW: The stories vary slightly. It’s quite interesting when you talk to them. In some places, there is another process where the householder pays so much per month – it varied in our discussions between five and twelve Egyptian pounds (which is about one pound twenty in UK terms, what’s that…just a bit more than a dollar) a month, yeah – through their electricity bills. And the proceeds for that are paid to the municipalities to actually organise the collections – or the government collects that in some sort of way. And, I don’t know whether they use that to pay the big waste companies and also the middle men who actually sort of organise…almost organise the Zabbaleen into, sort of, districts. Middlemen seem to feature a lot in the conversations and we weren’t quite sure how they figured in terms of how they got paid. But they did definitely got paid, so I suspect they get paid a lot from those electricity bill profits. And anyway, the Zabbaleen, basically, get only the proceeds from the dry recyclet, and they’re starting to reintroduce ideas about using the organics.
EM: Right, so that’s what they get, and the government and the middlemen who organise them get the proceeds from the electricity bills?
EM: Right okay. And I’ll like to move on a little bit now and talk about the Zabbaleen’s process – how do they go about recycling at all?
MW: Yeah, I mean, it was really interesting from my point of view, because really from the outside I’d seen from the films, you know, from Garbage Dreams and a few clips on YouTube, that they were reprocessing in pretty, sort of, strange circumstances. And I was sort of a little bit nervous about going, I think, you know, “God this is going to be, you know, a bit like wandering a landfill site”. It wasn’t smelly – it wasn’t brilliant, I’ve got to say. And health and safety certainly is probably not an issue for them: they’re survivors, they’re living of scraps, you know.
But the amazing thing is that after all that sort of manic chaos of very small scale workshops that are no bigger than, sort of, twice the size of your living room kind of thing, they end up producing pretty high-grade recyclet. The cardboard is cardboard, the paper is paper, the cans are cans and the plastics are plastics, sorted into all the grains.
And there’s some really, sort of, interesting technologies being used there. They make their own shredders and chippers and they actually go as far as extruding plastic into pellet, selling it onto the market at a very high price, so…. And yeah, again, the health and safety is not particularly good and the air conditioning and all the rest of it is not…it’s pretty, well, basic if at all. We are talking about what other people might call slum dwelling, and then there’s a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of product all over the place. But it all gets bailed up for market in a way in which I think UK reprocessors would be quite delighted to receive, they’d pay a good price for it. It’s a higher quality than we produce here in some of our “so-called” highly technological collection systems, especially using MRFs.
EM: Yeah, so they go out every day to collect it door-to-door?
MW: Yes. The men go out and collect it in the morning and bring it back, and then everybody scrambles over it and sorts it out, making it ready for market. There are four and a half million hereditaments – households, flats condominiums – all in, mostly, sort of, tower blocks and various…. And those houses are visited by the Zabbaleen collectors – four and a half million to five million estimate – at the very least every other day. In the posh areas they’re visited every single day. Every single day somebody knocks on your door and says “can I have your waste please”. I mean that’s just incredible! That’s just absolutely unbelievable. You know, I think you know – I didn’t know that. So for me they’re heroes – they’re total bloody heroes and they’re getting, I mean, they’re not getting paid much for what they’re doing.
EM: No, they really aren’t. And what are they doing now with the organic material?
MW: Yeah well we asked that question, we got some very sort of shifty looks and shaky eyes you know? Because, I think in reading between the lines that they do collect the organics but they realise that the most important thing for them is to keep that collection service going, they know that that’s their stake in society, if you like. So they keep that going absolutely. But what happens to the organics now varies. Now, it might be that it goes to their chickens and their goats and all the rest of it, but there’s a lot of organics lying around. So you rather suspect that – rather than pay two hundred Egyptian pounds to put it on a truck and send it up thirty-five kilometers to the landfill site, and then pay to have it put in there – then I rather suspect that what they do (and this is how they answered our questions on this one) is they said they put it into the government, in the contractors skips that were lying around the place. They’re not very good skips by the way, and they’re not very, they’re not emptied particularly well. So you get a lot of detritus around the skips, and there’s a lot of evidence of fly-tipping, burning rubbish everywhere. Which is one of the reasons why the government wanted Laila I think, to be the environment minister to actually sort out the “waste” problem – inverted commas – in and around Cairo.
EM: So really if the city just invested in the Zabbaleen, there wouldn’t be such a waste problem?
MW: Well yeah, I mean it stands out like a sore thumb, doesn’t it? If you actually paid the people to do the work, that’s a good idea for a start isn’t it? I mean I’m not, I don’t want to get involved in sort of guessing what the politics are, but you have to remember that the Zabbaleen are one hundred and seventy-five thousand Coptic Christians – and bearing in mind that Egypt used to be a Christian country before, not so long ago – and the predominant culture in Cairo at the moment is Muslim. So, I mean I don’t suppose having districts where there are people raising pigs and being a bit smelly and a bit slummy within your suburbs is actually, you know, good neighbour stuff, but if they had got paid properly for doing it, they could have invested and maybe moved out of the city, you know? They could have actually, you know, moved into the farming areas, which is what they as being – they started as pig farmers.
And when you ask them questions about what they wanted, they said two things: trucks – that was the interesting one, always something plus trucks, right? But the other things they said were: “well we want to be respected, we don’t want to be looked down on. We want to actually have a normal life as human beings in Cairo.” You know, it’s the old thing, isn’t it: what’s more valuable, a doctor or a waste collector? You know, it’s the old Marxist dilemma. And, I can tell you that if they stopped work tomorrow – which they will never do – if they stopped work tomorrow, it wouldn’t take…it would be a matter of days before Cairo would feel the pinch on that one.
EM: Yeah, definitely. And what did you and Gerry do over there to help them out?
MW: Well that was interesting because obviously we were – I mean, I said up front, Gerry and I both sent messages into Laila saying that the last thing we want to do is just be another two white guys coming from, you know, where we come from, you know, telling these guys what to do. I mean, these are the – they’re the experts I learned a hell of a lot more from them then they ever learnt from me in terms of recycling. They’ve been doing it for sixty years, you know? So it was humbling in that sense.
But on the other hand, by coincidence – and Gerry and I sort of came to this conclusion fairly quickly, really, within a couple of days – actually, we could actually help. That we had a bit of technology that I don’t thing they’d have heard of, or if they had, they hadn’t utilised, which would actually help them to actually make some use of that organic material. In other words, the Groundswell process, you know: no shred, no turned…basic equipment; it’s letting nature take its course, really. Basically – using inoculants to (muffled). So, we came to the conclusion fairly quickly that we could help them by asking them if they could use this system, which we then did and they said they could, and we did some workshops showing them how to make the stuff that they were going to use to inoculate their compost piles with.
Laila’s got some plans for doing some pilot trials in six districts – five or six districts – in Cairo. And before we’d got there, I mean, they’d already decided that they wanted to shake themselves up – I think they would call it formalisation. And they’ve some money from the Gates foundation to help them formalise their organisations into what other people would call recognisable companies, to actually be able to – within a few years – have a chance at being able to sign some contracts for delivering services into Cairo.
At the moment, they do it anyway. It’s an informal contract they’ve got with the householder. Nobody recognises that contract, except them. And I’m not sure that even they do, actually, that’s just something they’ve always done. But, I mean, that’s the best contract to have, when you actually think about, because the resources are in the hands of the householder. If the householder doesn’t make those resources available, as we have always said, you don’t get recycling done.
And, so they’ve got that. So I think, I’m quite optimistic that we planted a seed of technology, if you like, and you don’t get change without change in technology, really. But in addition to that, we wrote a report, which we thought Laila might be able to use in persuading her colleagues in the department of finance, or whatever, to think closely about the contractual arrangements in Cairo and to actually recognise the Zabbaleen a bit more. And it would actually make sense if they did that, because at the moment the government are in denial – they’re just denying that these guys do this stuff, you know? And the only people that know full well that they do it are: A. the householders – and that includes the people in the government of course, because they’re all householders presumably – and also the waste companies who just can’t get access to the stuff, so they have to pretend. They don’t mind pretending because they get paid zillions to do it! You know? I mean, it is topsy-turvy.
So I think it’s one of those rather, sort of, strange problems that could unravel itself, especially in the circumstances that Egypt now finds itself in, with its changes of governments and all the rest of it, and, you know, the calling for change is there. Everybody wants that change.
EM: That’s great to hear, and finally Mal, do you have any last words?
MW: Oh, I can’t actually let this opportunity pass: last night – I mean, Laila’s in London at the moment, and we’re meeting her on Thursday for a little bit of a celebration because her grandson Alexander was born last evening. And mother and child are doing well, but grandma is doing even better (laughs).
EM: (Laughs) Well that’s lovely that’s wonderful news, that’s lovely!
EM: But unfortunately, Mal, that’s all we have time for today. Thanks for joining us though!
MW: Okay! Bye now.