City Govs Must Accomodate 'Garbage People'

While globalization is changing how governments manage cities, grassroots groups are emerging and networking beyond geographical, political, and social boundaries. One area where they're thriving is waste management.

In Cairo, for example, 60 to 80 percent of daily trash has been collected, sorted, and recycled by the "Zabbaleen" or the "garbage people" for more than 100 years. Donkey carts and pickup trucks transport the waste to slums like Mokattam Village. Nicknamed "Garbage City," Mokattam Village is home to 20,000 to 30,000 people. There, glass, plastic, and paper is sorted, and organic waste is fed to pigs. Micro-businesses create jobs through upcycling waste into value-added products. The efficiency and feasibility of this community-managed system has been internationally recognized.

However, the Zabbaleens live in a perpetual grey zone, where they are subject to eviction and displacement.

In 2003, when the modernist city government outsourced waste management contracts to multinational companies to the value of $50 million, the Zabbaleens' access to waste was cut off and their way of life was threatened. For the city, an unanticipated outcome of this outsourcing has meant a stark drop in the capacity to manage the 10,000 pounds of waste generated by 16 million Cairo residents each day.

The impact on the Mokattam Village has been devastating. In the award-winning film Garbage Dreams, which documents the social networks of Zabbaleens, Laila, a social worker in Mokattam Village, recalls her interactions with the city government: "We're replacing you with the companies," they told her, "so we can be like the developed countries."

A Zabaleen garbage truck driving through Mokattam, Cairo (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Zabaleen garbage truck driving through Mokattam, Cairo (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Building a "global voice of the urban poor" is a key priority for Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a global social movement. In 2005, SDI organized a learning exchange among Egypt, South Africa, and Kenya to share ideas on community mobilization and organization, with a special focus on waste management. (You can read more about this in SDI's 2012 report: "The Zabaleen of Cairo.")

In Cape Town, South Africa, the lesson of the Zabbaleen has inspired community networks in the vast expanses of Khayelitsha, where more than a quarter of the city's 3.7 million people live.

The NGO Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) has supported the creation of a small administrative collection team to work alongside an existing network of communities. Links with industries and businesses such as paper (Nampak and Mondi), plastic (Extrupek, New Heights, and Proplus), and glass (SAB-Miller, Distell, Mega Metals, Consol, and Macro) were also essential to ensure a market for the waste collected. Today this network is known as the Solid Waste Network (SWN). The network comprises 350 individuals collecting more than 60 tonnes of glass, plastic and paper per month.

Profit(a)Bottle from Barefoot Workshops

The SWN meets monthly to discuss recycling industry and policy developments. A community waste collection and sorting point is in convenient proximity for waste pickers. The collection point doubles up as a learning space and to extend the network into other areas of the city.

For Mama Agnes, an elderly lady with a buy-in centre on Spine Road, recycling was the beginning of her informal business.

At a recent community meeting, she reported: "From the waste recycling we have also started a car washing business. We now employ eleven guys to wash cars, and we are proud to have the biggest car wash in Spine Road, in Khayelitsha."

Governments, such as the City of Cape Town's, are moving towards integrated waste management solutions. New options for trading in carbon credits are being developed to ensure greater redistribution of resources. Still, the question remains whether governments will be able and willing to create the conditions for informal pickers to be included in these new markets. 

Recognizing the role of informal pickers' livelihoods and business opportunities in the waste stream needs to be centrally integrated in the management of cities of the global south. While modernization and globalization are having an impact on city governance, more needs to be done to create strong institutional safety nets and guarantees for the inclusion of waste pickers and other community groups.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities