With pigs long gone, traditional recycling methods remain ineffective

A year and a half ago, in April 2009, the Egyptian government adopted the most stringent stance possible against the looming H1N1 virus, more commonly known as 'swine flu,' deciding to slaughter virtually all the pigs in the country. Despite the World Health Organization (WHO)'s repeated statements on the inefficiency of such a drastic measure, Egypt's entire swine population–estimated at some 300,000 at the time–disappeared overnight.

The move had a catastrophic impact on the lives of 70,000 families of zabaleen, or garbage collectors, who had put pigs at the center of their elaborate recycling system. The pigs ate all the organic waste collected by the zabaleen from the streets of Cairo, and were thus an integral part of income generation for these families.

The mass pig culling therefore led to piles of trash piling up everywhere in Cairo, as the garbage collectors stopped picking up the organic waste found among the trash–as there was no more use for it now that the pigs were gone–and the impoverishment of these people ensued as their recycling system had been effectively destroyed.

“The culling of the pigs essentially deprived the zabaleen of the most lucrative aspect of their income,” explained Soheir Morad of the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), which is based in Manshiyet Nasr. “After the slaughter, about ten percent of the garbage collectors, the poorest ones, lost their jobs altogether.”

Since 2003, the zabaleen have also had to deal with the introduction of private multinational sanitation companies.

“The zabaleen were paying fees to these big companies to be able to continue collecting garbage in certain areas while receiving some money from local households," said Morad. "At the time, this system worked because the pigs were an integral part of the system. But today, even though these companies have agreed to lift these fees and allow the zabaleen to collect trash freely, the system is no longer sustainable for many of them.”

Some of those who lost their jobs in the aftermath of the slaughter were hired by the multinational sanitation companies, while others have sought employment outside the community. Rafaat Latif, education projects officer at APE, explains that “a growing number of women and young girls have been hired by textiles factories and have dropped garbage collection altogether.”

The wholesale culling of the nation's pigs has led to a number of negative consequences, one of them being the recent mushrooming of illegal dumping sites. Morad explains that “people have been forced to find solutions, legal or not, to get rid of the organic waste they collect, now that the pigs have been removed from their recycling system.”

Legal dump sites are situated too far from garbage collectors’ neighborhoods, she noted, and transporting organic trash is expensive for the collectors, who would rather dump it discreetly in the streets at night. Morad explains that “some of the zabaleen also get rid of organic trash by dumping it in deserted areas in Kattameya, thus creating new illegal dump sites.”

In the wake of the slaughter, in April 2009, some families used the money the government gave them as compensation to purchase goats, hoping that these would take the pigs' place eating organic waste. Some three months ago, the poorest families–those that suffered most from the loss of their main source of income–were given goats to breed by the APE.

“The efficiency of goats in getting rid of organic waste has not been evaluated yet,” said Magda Gad, APE general director for Mokattam. “Goats have different eating habits than pigs. While pigs can eat anything, goats eat only greens, such as lettuce, herbs and paper.” She pointed out that the zabaleen must therefore avoid picking up cooked foods, such as rice or pasta, because the goats will not eat it.

What seems obvious, after a year and a half, is that the original recycling system that Egyptian garbage collectors had managed to set up in only a few decades–and which had drawn international admiration–was decapitated by the government’s hasty decision to destroy the nation's pigs. In the meantime, a comparatively efficient system has yet to materialize.

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