More about economics than trash, Cairo’s garbage removal problems take us to tradition and central planning.
Our story starts with the kitchen door of a New Yorker Magazine journalist’s first floor apartment. At the fire escape near the door, bagged or loose, his refuse awaited Sayyid Ahmed’s daily early morning collection. There was no pick-up schedule and no formal payment. But the journalist soon saw that Sayyid came everyday and expected a tip.
The lowest level of the garbage hierarchy, Sayyid Ahmed is a zabal who sorts, recycles and reuses trash from 400 residents in 27 buildings. Sayyid then pays the seven people who have the trash rights for those buildings with re-sellable items or cash. On the other end, Sayyid makes his money from customers’ tips and recyclables’ revenue. Close to $500 a month, his income is double the Cairo average.
The zabaleen system began during the early 1930s and 1940s when a group of entrepreneurial Christian immigrants said they would pay apartment building owners for the right to pick up their garbage. Remarkably efficient from an environmental perspective, the system reuses 80 percent of its trash. In “garbage villages,” the goods they gathered were made into items like clothes hangars, new garbage bags and mattress stuffing while food scraps were eaten by pigs that were sold to non-Muslims and hotels.
Now all is changing. A decade or so ago, instead of zabaleen sorting, reusing and recycling, the Egyptian government had contracted trash removal to multinational waste management firms who expected residents to put garbage in bins or at the roadside. A new approach mandated by government, it ignored the reasons a traditional system had functioned consistently. Today, because residents enjoy the dependability and familiarity of zabaleen like Sayyid, the old system refuses to disappear.
Here is a documentary on Cairo’s garbage. Although only part of the script is in English, you can still get a firsthand idea of Cairo’s garbage problems.
Our Bottom Line: The Transition From Tradition to Central Planning
Although tradition, command and the market are the three basic economic systems, most economies are combinations of all three. For Egypt, with zabaleen garbage removal, we have an example of the resilience of tradition in a centrally planned economy.