Cairo's 'Garbage City' continues its recycling operations unaware of Cop27

Despite processing the rubbish produced by the city's 22 million residents, Hay El Zabaleen neighbourhood is absent from the climate change conversation

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As Egypt prepares to host the UN's Cop27 climate change conference in November, residents in one of the world’s largest unofficial recycling operations continue their daily work without paying much attention.

Inhabitants of the 5.5 square kilometre informal settlement known as Cairo's “Garbage City” told The National that they had no knowledge that Cop27 was even taking place in Egypt, and that their work is unaffected by the goings-on in the outside world.

“We do our work to feed ourselves and our families. We don’t know much about the climate and all that. We do our work under any climate,” said Mena Samy, 31, who owns a plastic recycling warehouse in the area.

“Whether it’s raining, hot or windy, we do our work.”

Located at the base of Cairo’s Moqattam Hills and sprawled across their slopes, Garbage City — Hay El Zabaleen in Arabic — is part of Mansheyet Naser, an unofficial settlement near Cairo’s Nasr City district.

El Zabaleen recycles over 85 per cent of all the rubbish produced by Cairo’s 22 million residents.

Home to more than 70,000 people — predominantly Coptic Christians — it is one of the Egyptian capital’s poorest districts.

Its living conditions can be jarring to outsiders, shocked by the stench of the rubbish that covers the packed settlement.

Though its streets are covered with heaps of rubbish, residents of Hay El Zabaleen have attempted to decorate it with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary suspended between buildings on opposite sides of the street.

Other prominent Coptic figures are also honoured with murals on many of the walls and balconies in the area.

A depiction of the Virgin Mary decorates Hay El Zabaleen - Cairo's 'Garbage City'. Kamal Tabikha / The National

Mr Samy says that despite enjoying widespread media coverage as a romanticised emblem of environmental practices in Egypt, to its residents, Hay El Zabaleen is nothing more than a makeshift economy created out of the discarded bits of other people’s lives.

Each day, dozens of lorries laden with rubbish bags collected from every corner of Cairo line up to enter El Zabaleen’s narrow streets to unload their cargo.

This is then sorted by recyclers in the area’s rundown homes and warehouses.

The area is also home to some of the few pig farms in Cairo, which are an essential part of its operations as they eat the organic waste found during rubbish sorting.

Cairo,Egypt-May/14-Coptic christian child stares in to the camera in Cairo's biggest christan populated slum, Manshiet Nasser. The people who are living in the neighbourhood are living from recycling the vast amount of garbage pruduced by the metropolis. Every family member 
is participating in selecting the garbage including children in his age. (Sandor Jaszberenyi for The National)

Though the eating and raising of pigs are prohibited under Islam, this is not the case in Christianity. Before the area became known for sorting rubbish, it was one of the largest pig farming operations in Egypt.

Each operation specialises in a different aspect of the recycling process whereby one household will only collect and sort plastic, while another will only collect tin, or aluminium, or cardboard. The size and output of each operation varies according to how much capital and labour it has.

The area’s wealthier recyclers typically buy machines such as pressers or pelletisers, which enable them to process the rubbish and sell it at a higher price to the many factories which buy the recycled plastic from them.

“If I just sort the plastic I find and sell it as it is. I can make five [Egyptian] pounds ($0.25) on every kilo of garbage, but if I press it or turn it into pellets, I can sell it for six or seven pounds,” said Gerges Ibrahim, 41, who owns one of the few pelletisers in the area.

The area’s young people also exploit its unofficial economy by collecting rubbish and selling it to recyclers.

“I go up to the rich homes on the other side of the Al Moqattam hills every morning and collect whatever I can salvage from the garbage cans there,” said Emil Kirollos, 17, a resident of Garbage City.

“I do it for a couple of hours and return with two or three bags of garbage.

“Depending on what I find, I could make 100 or 200 pounds every day.”

A man picks up waste material for recycling that can be re-sold in the area of Manchiyet Nasser, in Mokattem, Cairo, Egypt. EPA

Mr Ibrahim, whose family has been sorting rubbish in Mansheyet Naser since the 1930s, was one of the few residents who had heard about Cop27.

He told The National that he was told about the conference by a security guard at a plastics company he was delivering a shipment to. He then saw a news segment about the conference on television.

“These kinds of events only really matter to the big, wealthy companies who have a public image to maintain. We don’t really worry about our public image here, the whole area is covered in garbage, for God’s sake,” Mr Ibrahim said.

Alya El Marakby, an independent environmental researcher, told The National that recycling and other green initiatives are fashionable in Egypt right now because of the conference.

But Garbage City displays a side of the country that is often hidden because it is at odds with how Egypt wants to present itself abroad, she said.

“Green initiatives like Very Nile for instance have a strong branding aspect to their operation because they were launched by business-savvy people who are aware of the international trends and their focus on green projects,” said Ms El Marakby.

“But when you’re talking about an area as poor and underdeveloped as Hay El Zabaleen, you have to understand that their participation in recycling is out of economic necessity rather than being a part of the global climate change industry and mainstream activism.

“I think the fact that they are so poor makes them somewhat irrelevant when it comes to the business side of Cop27.”

Many of the area’s residents belong to families who in the early 1900s and onwards migrated to Cairo from Upper Egypt, a rural region of the country which has a distinct, conservative, culture.

They are wary of outsiders and many residents limit their interactions with anyone from outside their neighbourhood.

Mr Samy sugforgests this might be another factor why the conference is virtually unknown in the area.

Perhaps the insular nature of the area may also have something to do with misconceptions about Hay El Zabaleen and its people among other Cairo residents.

Ziad Hamada, 45, a resident of the nearby Al Dowayqa area of Mansheyet Naser, said that in his neighbourhood, people from Garbage City are looked down upon because of their association with waste.

As Egypt's wealthier recycling operations prepare to participate in Cop27, many have launched promotional campaigns centred around the conference and its importance.

Despite its poverty and marginalisation, El Zabaleen has been lauded for its efficiency. The area recycles more than 90 per cent of the rubbish it collects — far exceeding the percentage achieved by most recycling companies.

The area also witnesses a fair amount of tourism because it surrounds the Monastery of Saint Simon — more commonly known as the Cave Church — located at the top of Al Moqattam and carved into its limestone face.

Updated: November 07, 2022, 3:18 AM
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