Environmentalism in the Garbage City

Caitlin O'Dowd '12 in Mokattam with students at the school run by the Spirit of Youth Association (S.O.Y.).
Caitlin O'Dowd '12 in Mokattam with students at the school run by the Spirit of Youth Association (S.O.Y.).
After our trash leaves our hands, we in the U.S. like to pretend it no longer exists. But to people in an informal settlement called Mokattam just outside Cairo, Egypt, sorting and recycling garbage is essential to their livelihood. Working with Assistant Professor of Government Peter Cannavo, Caitlin O’Dowd ’12 was awarded an Emerson grant to investigate the relationship between the waste system and social justice in Mokattam.

The zabaleen, or garbage collectors, were a marginalized group even before they started sorting trash. Most of them are Coptic Christian, a religious minority of 10 percent in Egypt. This tight-knit minority community has long been engaged in raising most of Egypt’s pigs, as the Muslim majority considers pigs to be the dirtiest of all creatures. Already isolated from ordinary Egyptian society, the zabaleen have been pushed farther and farther from the center of Cairo by the Egyptian government since the 1930s. But O’Dowd found another reason behind the community’s outcast status: “The people are being put in this situation not because they’re Christian, but because they’re poor.” This community has been so systematically marginalized that even many residents of Cairo do not know about it, and O’Dowd received many a questioning glance when she asked taxi drivers to take her to the Mokattam trash heaps.

As trash collectors, the zabeleen serve an essential public service. They are typically underpaid, but they still remove Cairo’s trash, which then they sort in their own community. They separate the organic from the inorganic trash, at one time recycling as much as 80 to 85 percent of what they collected—substantially more than the 20 percent of competing international garbage collection agencies, which the Egyptian government is trying to bring into the country. “Among the few Americans familiar with the situation, the garbage system in Mokattam has received a reputation for being very eco-friendly. It’s disturbing to hear that, equating what they do with the popular notion of ‘being green,’” O’Dowd said. “There’s a bigger issue of ecology, sustainability, and environmental justice here.”

But despite widespread ignorance of the health issues in Mokattam, several non-government organizations (NGOs) have set up posts to help the community. O’Dowd worked with three such organizations in Mokattam: the Association for the Protection of Environment (APE), the Spirit of Youth Association for Environmental Service (SOY), and Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Although each of these organizations provides a different service to the zabaleen, they are all concerned with improving the quality of life of the people of Mokattam, whether they provide education, day care or employment in doing so.

O’Dowd initially went to Mokattam to learn more about the culture that resides in the area as well as about the environmental initiatives that have been taken there, such as the use of biogas and the campaign for waste separation. But she ended up finding out more about how the community actually works and the incarnations of social justice that exist there.

After working with all three of these NGOs and getting to know the community, O’Dowd made a surprising conclusion: the zabaleen’s way of life is symbiotically beneficial to not only Cairo, but to the zabaleen as well. “The zabaleen’s knowledge of and proximity to trash is probably the framework for allowing them to progress,” she said. “Healthcare and pollution are an issue, but the same issues exist in greater Cairo; they’re just more obvious in Mokattam. In the U.S. we’ve really distanced ourselves from our trash, but the zabaleen do a lot with what they have. Their lifestyle is probably not ideal from a ‘western perspective,’ but it is helpful for Cairo and the people in the community. Unfortunately, the idea of completely dissolving them from this responsibility, for many reasons, is no longer a viable option.”

O’Dowd is less hopeful about the prospect of the zabaleen becoming less marginalized. After being relocated by the government so many times, the zabaleen now face competition from international trash collecting companies, which threaten to destroy their way of life. “In addition, the zabeleen had supplemented their incomes by raising pigs that fed on organic waste, but the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of all pigs in Egypt in the wake of the H1H5 (swine flu) pandemic last year," O'Dowd said. "As a result, the recycling rate has dropped to below 50 percent, along with a steep decline in zabaleen incomes.”

This semester O’Dowd hopes to present a screening of Garbage Dreams, a documentary directed by Mai Iskander about three young boys living and working in the Garbage City.

O’Dowd is a graduate of the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda, Israel.
Back to Top