From a very early age, Fath Karam Ghali, 41, started working in the rubbish warehouses owned by his family in the Zabbaleen Neighborhood in Munsha’et Naser District in western Cairo. Sorting and trading rubbish is so profitable that his family had no interest in sending him to school. Like all the other families in his neighborhood, Karam was taught the basics of the profession practiced by his ancestors after they arrived from southern Egypt 70 years ago.

Some 60,000 people live in the Zabbaleen Neighborhood, most of whom work in collecting and sorting rubbish. The roofs of their homes, which reach as high as five floors, are covered with rubbish bags.

Built on the slopes of Mokatam Hill, Zabbaleen recycles 2,000 tons of the 15,000 tons of rubbish produced by the capital every day. They sort the rubbish into cardboard, plastic and aluminum soda cans. These components are then sold to specialized traders in the neighborhood and outside it to be reprocessed, and the organic waste is used to feed pigs.

Zabbaleen Neighborhood’s residents might be the most productive rubbish recyclers in the world. They recycle 80% of the rubbish they collect compared to global rates which stand at 50%. The sorting process in the neighborhood is characterized by meticulous handwork and experience, which has been transferred from generation to generation over decades. Comparatively, rubbish companies and public facilities tend to employ untrained labor and pay them very low wages.

The secret is out

Karam and many from his neighborhood resent the strangers who got into the profession after it came under the spotlight over the last few years. They object to the government’s recent policy to collect and recycle rubbish through kiosks that buy rubbish from residents. Rubbish collectors take L.E. 5-10 (.15 -.82 USD) from each building despite the fact that residents pay L.E. 5 (.15) monthly in cleaning fees, which are added to the electricity and water bills.

Based on official data, the Ministry of Electricity collected L.E. 700 million (USD 38.6 million) in cleaning fees in 2016. In the very same year, Cairo Governorate alone paid about L.E. 500 million (USD 27.5 million) to foreign companies tasked with cleaning certain neighborhoods in the capital. The government pays the difference between the collected taxes and what it pays to these companies which, many government officials stress, fail to do their job properly.

Egyptians produce 47,000 tons of rubbish every day. According to media reports and what people say on social media, the price of one ton of rubbish is L.E. 3,000-6,000 (USD 166-331), but Karam and many of his colleagues deny this figure.

In March 2017, Cairo Governorate announced official prices of rubbish components. The governorate started collecting in the Masr Al-Jadida District, which is mainly populated by the rich and upper-middle class. The project will be gradually rolled out in other areas and the prices of other rubbish components will be announced when the project proves successful. These components vary from one area to another based on its social class and nature (urban or rural) and the financial status of their residents.

Karam and a group of rubbish collectors and traders in the neighborhood stress that they are able to clean Cairo, which suffers from huge piles of rubbish. The companies collect 65% and the collectors pick up about 15% and the rest remains in the streets, especially in the side ones. He adds that there are one million workers in the field in Egypt and that they can clean the country with no need to resort to any foreign companies whose work does not match what they charge. These companies, he claims, want to deprive rubbish collectors of their sole source of income.