When the Zabbaleen Recyclers of Cairo came to Wales - Eifion Williams

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How localism prevailed over global might

Article by Eifion Williams, CEO Circular Economy Wales.

Circular Economy Wales does many things, but mainly connects communities in Wales with communities around the world who have developed models, the expertise, and the means to achieve Zero Waste locally. With the sand in the climate change hourglass rapidly drying, utilising and sharing success is a wise move. By eliminating waste we create the Circular Economy by default; the challenge then of course rests with where collected materials go and who benefits. In the truly sustainable Circular Economy, local communities and local businesses gleam the inherent wealth found in their own waste streams.

This is the story of how a people triumphed over global corporations who moved in en-mass and for a period denied them their livelihoods. If you’ve not heard of the Zabbaleen of Cairo, you should. The Zabbaleen community are an inspiration in an age where global corporations ride roughshod over local communities and small businesses the world over.

The Zaballen community of Cairo are expert recyclers: for several generations, they have supported themselves by collecting and recycling, door to door, from the residents of Cairo. Using pick-up trucks and donkey-pulled carts to collect in the narrowest of streets, they transport hundreds of tons of materials from Cairo to their homes in Mokattam Village where they sort pretty well everything. They recycle up to 80 percent of the waste that they collect compared to just a quarter of this figure being achieved in many countries using sophisticated and expensive machinery.

Wales at the time had started ploughing a lone furrow; taking a lead from recycling social enterprises (Newport Wastesavers, Torfaen Community Recycling and Monmouthshire Community Recycling) in keeping recyclables separate, clean and with maximum salable value retained. This was and continues to be achieved by providing simple open boxes to householders where the separation of waste can be monitored and adjusted by kerbside operatives loading up their trucks by simply looking into a wide open box. Wales and the Zaballeen hold one thing in common when it comes to recycling and that’s simplicity. The bond between Wales and the Zaballeen continues to this day.

Young Zabbaleen visiting recycling social enterprise initiatives in Wales

I suppose it’s no coincidence that the Zaballeen and Wales formed strong links and that the story is told in the Oscar-nominated film Garbage Dreams by Mai Iskander. In 2006 I asked Zero Waste International if they’d be interested in developing an exchange programme for young people involved at the coal face of recycling. Within a couple of weeks, I was put in touch with Dr Laila Iskander, a social worker from Cairo, who’d set up a recycling school there, to provide education for the children of the Zaballeen.

Laila wanted to set up an opportunity for three Zaballeen young people to come over to Wales to work with recycling initiatives in Wales. I had no idea at the time of the painstaking negotiation with the UK border agency for work permits, that their journey was to be filmed by Mai Iskander for what was to be the Oscar-nominated Garbage Dreams.

The film documented multi-national waste firms, on the invitation of the government, moving into Cairo with a devastating impact on the Zaballeen’s very existence. One of the cruelest and most harrowing aspects of this was the destruction of the Zabbaleen's pig herd, on order of the government. Officials exterminated over a thousand pigs, kept by the Zabballen to recycle the city's food waste. They did so by herding them into a huge pre-prepared pit, dousing the herd in petrol and setting fire to them. The Zabballeen, years later, are still haunted and traumatised by the incident. This cold and calculated move, has echoes synonymous with the slaughter of buffalo to undermine, displace and destroy the native American way of life a century ago.
Recycling didn’t improve for Cairo with its new multi-million dollar equipment as waste began to pile up and become an issue once more.

In July 2013 Dr Laila Iskander was sworn in as Minister of Environment for Egypt. The Zaballeen, not long after, were re-instated as the officially contracted recycling collectors and our friend and collaborator, Gerry Gallespie who set up Australia's City to Soil programme (read about his collaboration with Circular Economy Wales here), helped our Zabbaleen friends to create a locally sourced and cutting edge means of turning food waste into soil nutrition for the Nile delta, helping improve the lives of farmers.

In the Circular Economy, systems are sustainable when kept local. The Zaballeen provide us all with a great example of this; their persistence and their determination, like so many communities around the world, who are all, determined in solidarity to rebuild and prosper.

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