Technology Isn’t Always the Answer

Garbage Dreams: The Zebbaleen of Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

My roommate took me to an incredible documentary last night, Garbage Dreams. Not only was it in Egyptian colloquial Arabic so I could pretend it was homework, but it was a poignant, intriguing story.

Until recently, Cairo didn’t have a municipal garbage collection service. They had the Zabbaleen. Mostly minority Coptic Christians and all of them very poor, the Zabbaleen saw an economic opportunity, and for generations they’ve been collecting, sorting, treating and recycling Cairenes’ waste. By recycling 80% of what they collect, they are able to earn enough money to live.

Well, they were. And then globalization. Cairo hired foreign companies to collect trash in Africa’s biggest city. Now the Zabbaleen face the threat of losing the only way of life they know. Just as bad, those foreign companies only recycle 20% of the waste they collect. An economic and ecological disaster.

The best part of the film is probably when Adham and Nabil go to Wales to see how recycling is done in the “developed” world. While their hostess, who clearly doesn’t speak Arabic, shows them with great pride the state-of-the-art facility in Wales, the boys are at times awed by the technology, but mostly aghast at how much recyclable material gets past the machines and ends up in the landfill anyway. Pie in the face of Western liberal green innovation!

If you have a chance to see this film, it’s not nearly as grim and grimy as you might expect!

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