Trash isn’t new to Cairo, but have you ever stopped to think about where our trash actually goes after it’s dumped onto the streets or taken away by the bawab?

If you’re intrigued, watch eco-documentary Garbage Dreams. Directed by Cairo local Mai Eskandar, the documentary discusses one of the most efficient waste disposable systems in the world, which happens to be in this very city. The film gives us insight into the life of the Zabaleen through the stories of three different young men who have grown up in the area and work as trash collectors. While they express their daily hardships, their genuine spirits are humbly felt and help open our eyes to the nature of their situation.

While many of us are more than familiar with the sight of donkey carts hauling off mounds of trash, rarely have we ever given thought as to what happens in the aftermath.

Towards the end of the 19th century, migrants from Upper Egypt began moving to Cairo, and by 1950, over 60,000 individuals had settled in and around the area of Manshiet Nasr near the Mokattam Hills; taking up life as Cairo’s trash collectors. Not only did the Zabaleen set up a strenuous system of retrieving over 4000 tons of trash a day, but they also creatively produced recycling centres, where over 75% of the collected trash is recycled and resold; making a sustainable system while also innovatively generating an income in the process.

With Cairo’s ever-growing population producing trash at a phenomenal rate (some sources estimate 25,000 tons a day: enough to fill Cairo Stadium), the work of the Zabaleen became quickly inefficient with their simple donkey-cart-and-sorting system. Then, the government began contracting multinational waste collection companies that solely deal with privatised solid-waste management.

Not only have the contracts left thousands of Cairenes without employment, but with 0% of the trash being recycled, the landfills are growing at an alarming rate. While the Zabaleen are struggling to make ends meet and are forming initiatives for efficient upgrades of their waste disposal system and recycling centres, all of the effort is at stake with no help from the government and little help from international organisations.

Ezzat Naem Guindy is the founder of the Spirit of Youth Association for Environmental Service. The organisation has been working diligently to not only speak out about the importance of the Zabaleen to the Cairo community but also to launch a more efficient recycling school in the area. The school provides a non-formal education for those that can’t afford school otherwise. The school teaches children the basics of recycling and also provides literacy courses among other things.

For more information on how you can help recycle your Cairo trash, check out our guide to Going Green: Simple at Home Solutions. Also, do yourself a favour and get your hands on a copy of Garbage Dreams; available for purchase on the website. Not only will you learn something new about your environment; but you may also be inspired to help make a difference.