Cairo's Illuminating Garbage Problem

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by Anders Mikkelsen by Anders Mikkelsen Recently by Anders Mikkelsen: The DC Reality Tour


The Sundance Channel is airing Tuesday April 20th a documentary Cities On Speed — Cairo: Garbage about the colossal breakdown of garbage collection in Cairo, one of the biggest cities in the world.1 The documentary fails to answer some key questions, however it does document the failure of the mercantilist state to do something as basic as clean up the garbage. While the film never states this clearly, it appears that the government destroyed an old functioning private traditional system of garbage collection and recycling. The film beautifully documents the attempts by everyone to deal with and resolve the breakdown of order. Like any good drama, each character is allowed to speak and their perspective reveal as much about their mental framework, values, and social role as about the problem itself.

The documentary Cairo: Garbage begins by telling us that no one really knows how many people live in Cairo. 18 million seems like a good number for Cairo, but some think it could be half that. The documentary was made in 2009, and at that time garbage pick-up had broken down with trash accumulating on sides of streets and alleyways of Cairo's rich and poor neighborhoods. At the end the documentary blames the garbage problem on the great increase in population. However the documentary gives plenty of evidence that there was a radical change responsible.

According to the film, traditionally communities of Egyptian Coptic Christians used to pick up the trash. For a modest fee they’d come to your home or apartment every day and bring it back to the "garbage village" neighborhoods they lived in. They’d sort and recycle everything they could, using it in their own manufacturing. The film shows the stages of the production process. Paper was used by the residents of "Garbage Villages" to make paper products like fancy paper bags and stationery. Fabric would make fabric products like stuffed animals. Plastic was used to make plastic products like hangers. The food fed the pigs which were sold when full grown. While not surprisingly the conditions are unpleasant, the communities were full-blown economies using garbage from Cairo as a feedstock instead of dumping it all in a landfill.

What happened next is a little hazy in the documentary.

The documentary said that the garbage villages couldn't handle all the garbage from all the people, but it doesn't give evidence why this was true.

Cairo brought in foreign companies to collect the garbage. They insisted people use bins and western methods like big garbage trucks and corporations. People had to pay for this via an extra charge on their electrical bill.

The problem was that people weren't used to finding garbage bins and then putting their garbage in the bin. With the new system Egyptians would either put the garbage on the side of the road or next to the bin. The garbage companies thought Egyptians found it too taxing to actually put the garbage in the bins, and even produced commercials to encourage putting garbage in the bins not just near it. The Egyptians however had been used to people coming to their building and collecting the garbage. They didn't have to go downstairs and find a bin on the street and then get the garbage up and over the lid of the bin. Worse yet, garbage bins were large and had to be placed in areas where they were accessible by big garbage trucks. This excluded bins from many portions of Cairo’s narrow streets and alleys. It wasn't easy for many people to find bins, and if they knew where one was it might be quite a walk. (If you've never seen this system, imagine taking your garbage not to your curb, but down your street or even around the corner. Now imagine doing this several times a week.) They liked the old system with inexpensive daily pick-up at home and understandably didn't see the changes as progressive, but an imposition.

To make matters worse it appears that the western companies couldn't figure out how to run their business in Egypt. Residents would constantly complain that garbage was not picked up regularly. They were used to daily pickup. Attempts to call to get garbage pickup would fail. One character, the owner of a fancy restaurant frequented by ambassadors, claimed that garbagemen would just dump trash by his restaurant. Apparently people would even harass garbage collectors, but it isn't clear why or if that was really true or an excuse to not work.

To get service, people had to pay twice. On the electrical bill they'd be assessed an extra charge for garbage collection. In order to really get service they'd have to pay a second time. Either they'd tip the government-endorsed garbagemen or they’d pay private garbagemen to do the job. It also wasn't clear why the restaurant owner or other people didn't pay enterprising garbage people to come and take garbage away. One can only assume a combination of factors — alternatives weren't allowed to exist, people refused to pay again for a service they were paying for, qualified people were working at capacity. At any rate the new system has resulted in society no longer taking care of its own garbage problem.

The documentary shows there was a functioning system of garbage collection that had co-evolved with the norms of Egyptian society. The government then stepped in to "solve the problem." It forced everyone to pay money to companies using western techniques that hadn't been adapted to the realities of Egyptian society. The companies couldn't cope with the quantity of garbage or managing Egyptian employees. The western-style companies apparently didn't recycle as intensively and couldn't provide low-cost daily garbage pickup like the garbage village system. The garbage companies and government would also try to persuade people to change their habits to use the bin system which was convenient for companies, but less convenient than the old system. The companies were also unable to figure out how to efficiently collect the garbage that was lying around in easy-to-access piles on the side of the streets.

The different perspectives of the people in the documentary make for fascinating viewing. Characters include a restaurant owner in a fancy neighborhood, a foreign garbage company executive, a garbage company manager, a woman running a local environmental group, and a bridegroom in Christian Garbage Village. Most people seem faced with new intractable problems they can't easily solve despite their attempts.

At the end of the film we learn that the government then killed all the pigs in Garbage Villages. The pigs were the key component for processing the vast quantities of organic garbage Cairo produces year round. One would expect this to vastly increase the amount of rotting garbage on the streets, and one would be right. The situation was so bad that even New York Times articles on the subject are clear that this is an example of government failure.

The first article is from May 2009.2 According to the NYT's Michael Slackman, the government disliked the 400,000 Christian Zabaleen who lived in garbage villages. The government was killing pigs to get Zabaleen to live in sanitary conditions. (The irony is that everyone else is living a less sanitary life without the Zabaleen, plus the Zabaleen made a living providing sanitation services that are by their nature relatively unsanitary.) The private companies couldn’t handle trash collection on their own. The NY Times said 6,000 tons daily was processed by Zabaleen and 2,000 by private carters. There are some choice quotes:

The Zabaleen and their supporters argue that if the people of Cairo could be taught to separate organic and inorganic waste before throwing out their household trash, the problem could be solved. The pigs could be raised in farms outside of the city and the organic waste could be carted out there daily…

Many here acknowledge that this is a system that is easy to criticize, from the pigs and the unsanitary living conditions to the sight of children hauling trash, their faces smeared and their clothing stained.

But it is how they eat and survive. And it is how they have remained independent of a government they do not trust. They would not object to having the system fixed. They just do not want it wrenched away…

u201CMaybe the government has noble goals,u201D said Mr. Gindy, whose nonprofit group runs the school that Basem attends. u201CBut the way they address the problem is not good. The government always says this is the decision and you will follow.u201D

The second article in September 2009, also by Michael Slackman, talks about the disastrous aftermath of the new program.3 It talks about how the formal system is hopeless and the problems worse than ever. The Zabaleen had stopped picking up organic trash once pigs were slaughtered.

The city-approved garbagemen had also gone on strike. (The nice thing about private collectors who are small businessmen is that if one goes on strike you can hire another one who wants to make some money.)

Swine flu was the excuse the government used at first to kill the pigs, but they also admitted they didn’t like the garbage cities. The Government used the Swine flu scare to keep schools closed after summer break till October. (This appears to have been part of a ploy to re-organize schools with children attending only three days a week to cut down on class size.) They also ordered private schools be shut.

The health ministry claimed the slaughter of pigs wasn’t their decision but higher-ups at the presidential and governor level.

The garbage situation in Cairo is a classic example of government imposing a supposedly rational and modern solution that fits the needs of the people in charge but doesn't fit the needs of people. From the perspective of people in the government the program may have successfully helped push out the Zabaleen, lined the right pockets, bribed voters with jobs, etc. However they ended up with a public relations disaster, and the elite who didn’t like the garbage cities have turned all Cairo into a garbage city. The end result for the people was a spectacular failure.


  1. See airtimes here. It may be on demand as well. Cable companies like Time Warner Cable of NYC have a free HD on-demand channel with a Sundance section. The other documentaries are also fascinating looks at city politics and governance.
  2. Michael Slackman, "Cleaning Cairo, but Taking a Livelihood," NY Times May 24 2009.
  3. Michael Slackman, "Belatedly, Egypt Spots Flaws in Wiping Out Pigs," NY Times September 19 2009.

Anders Mikkelsen [send him mail] is a cost management consultant in New York City.

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