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Manfredi Pantanella

Leaving Rubbish

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Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the world’s largest cities, more than 25 million inhabitants which produces a lot of wastes.

Until today an ad-lib urban plan could not manage the situation, leaving the city flooding in the trash.

No chance. Luckily, Cairo has the Zabbaleen.

The Zabbaleen are a religious minority of Coptic Christians who have served as 
Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for the past 80 years. Zabbaleen means
 “Garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic.

Spread out among seven different settlements scattered in the Greater Cairo Urban Region, the Zabbaleen population is about
 80,000. The largest settlement is in the village of Moqattam, better known as the
 “Garbage City”, located at the feet of the
 Moqattam Mountains, next to Manshiyat Naser, a Muslim squatter settlement 
where the 90 percent of the community of this region are of Christian faith followers.
 For the past decades the Zabbaleen have supported themselves by collecting the 
trash, going door-to-door, for almost no
 charges. The Zabbaleens currently recycle up to 80 percent of the collected waste, whereas only 25 percent is reused by Western garbage companies. 
Many sources agree that the Zabbaleen have created one of the most efficient
 recycling systems in the world, they collect up to 3,000 tons of 
garbage every day.

The government does not reward the Zabbaleen for their actions, but instead has created a privatized system of waste collection, which is threatening the 
socio-economic sustainability of the Zabbaleen community.

The Egyptian government announced its plans to modernize and ‘Westernize’ the city’s waste management system, claiming the Zabbaleen’s methods were backward and unhygienic. This is not entirely false. Although conditions are improving, diseases such as hepatitis are common. This is hardly surprising when rubbish, including sharp metal, broken glass, and hospital waste such as syringes, are all sorted by hand.

However, the Zabbaleen were joined by many international aid agencies in protesting that the only way to lift them out of poverty was to allow them to keep their jobs as the city’s rubbish collectors. In a country with a 10.8% unemployment rate and with 20% of the population living in poverty, they had a point.

The three European companies hired to clean up Cairo cost $50 million a year, and recycled at best 25% of the waste they collected. The companies offered to hire the Zabbaleen as collectors, but offered as little as a dollar a day, half what a Zabbaleen can earn working for himself. However, the privatisation system has failed, leaving the city with litter-strewn streets and the continued use of the unsanitary landfill sites. Some have claimed that all the new modernisation initiatives have done is inspire a new generation of street waste collectors.


Manfredi Pantanella was born in 1985.

He lives between Rome and Paris. He attended The “Centro Sperimentale di Fotografia” of Rome and the “Ecole Superieure de Photographie et d’ Audiovisuel” of Paris. He work on stories about subcultures and documentary photography.

He has worked as an assistant for Reza (National Geographic Fellow).


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Manfredi Pantanella

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