The Waste Stream

In Cairo, Egypt, an under-recognized group called the Zaballeen have been responsible over the last hundred years or more for the city’s garbage collection. Not only do they collect from door to door, but they recycle 80 percent of the garbage they process, recapturing materials such a plastic, fiber, and metals to be sold within their own country and exported to Europe.

The lives of this remarkable group are explored in a documentary film by Mai Iskander, called Garbage Dreams. In watching it, I marveled at the creativity and ingenuity of these people, who live under marginal conditions in a slum area of Cairo. They’ve set up a safe recycling school for their youngsters and even sent a couple of them to study the recycling industry in Wales, where, as it happens, only 27 per cent of the refuse collected is actually recycled. The country is striving to raise the percentage another ten per cent in the future. If so, they’ll still be far behind to 80 per cent claimed by the Zaballeen, who manage it with human labor and  extremely primitive equipment.

The down side of the Zaballeen’s story is the fact that they’re considered to be what might be known as in India as “untouchables.” They tend to be shunned and their essential contribution to society has been locally ignored. Consequently, the powers-that-be in Cairo, anxious for the city to be viewed as “world class,” have contracted with foreign-based companies to collect the city’s refuse. No effort is apparently made by these companies to recycle. Instead, the trash is buried in a desert landfill.

The film set me thinking about the generally low status accorded to those who deal with our trash and our sewage, despite both functions being essential to our comfortable survival. I speculate that this is due to the fact that in a consumption-based culture, we can’t afford to notice either where our plenty comes from, or where it goes when we’re done with it. To blindly consume without fear of guilt or consequence, we must believe that it magically appears on our store shelves, then just as quickly evaporates into thin air once we’ve used it up or grown tired of it.

I urge you to see this film. It’s reviewed on Netflix, but not currently available there. For readers local to this area, you can find it across the street from Mindport at Film-is-Truth.

Kevin Jones