Egyptian garbage collector communities, known as zabbaleen, play an invaluable role in the management of Cairo’s solid waste. They specialize in separating organic and non-organic materials. Recyclable materials are sorted from the non-organic waste and delivered to recycling companies. The organic waste is turned into rich compost which is then delivered to local farms. Organic waste is also used by Bedouins to feed their livestock.
Laila Iskandar won the Goldman Prize in 1994 for her work to organize and empower the zabbaleen communities. In mid-January, she celebrated a victory as the process began to legally register groups of garbage collectors as formal companies. A syndicate has also been approved, the “syndicate for workers in the Cleansing and Beautification Sector,” securing their place in the formal sector. Additionally, the governor of Cairo issued a decree stating that the Cairo Cleansing and Beautification Authority must contract with these newly formed companies or face penalties.
Formalizing the zabbaleen will improve the social status for thousands of people traditionally pushed to the margins of society, while also securing a way to earn a living and learn valuable skills. Iskandar has been actively working with the zabbaleen throughout the “Arab Spring” to keep Egypt’s environment healthy by emphasizing the importance of recycling, reusing and composting, and will continue to do so as these important changes are implemented in Egypt’s evolving society.