Garbage is one of the world’s most abundant and universal problems. It contaminates our land, water and, for many, our homes and bodies. It is under collected and usually poorly managed. In many world cities like Dar es Salaam, where less than 1⁄4 of garbage is collected, waste accumulates in the poorest neighborhoods and creates dangerously unsanitary conditions.
But garbage doesn’t just sit. It breaks down and leaches into the ground. It explodes with the help of the methane gas it produces. It flows and clogs, oozes and reeks. But in many cases, it is collected and reused or recycled. In the global North we may associate our garbage with green trucks and clean recyclables. But in the South, garbage is more closely related to the marginalized and sometimes dangerous neighborhoods where it most accumulates, and to the often desperate individuals who remove it from the streets, our trash cans and even landfills to resell or recycle. While informal recyclers face a range of challenges and risks, including lack of transportation, housing, sanitation, medical treatment and other basic needs, one of the most complicated problems preventing healthy working conditions for the world’s informal recyclers is stigma.
Most of the world looks to industrialized countries like Germany and the United States for effective waste management models, but these models may not be appropriate in countries where their current waste management system relies heavily on the undervalued and somewhat futile work of informal recyclers. In Brazil, close to 100% of informal recyclers will never work a different job.

Many cities, like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, look to more developed cities as a model of cleanliness, aspiring to clean their streets in a similar way, but with little regard for where things go once removed from the street. When waste management models focus on urban cleanliness rather than the development of sustainable solutions for waste, comprehensive recycling is often neglected or undervalued as part of the waste management system. You can see this problem in Lebanon, where the streets are clean but the catastrophic Saida landfill spilled into the Mediterranean Sea; in Brazil, where city-contracted garbage workers must clean the mess that the informal recyclers sometimes leave in search of materials; and even in Egypt, where the government hired foreign companies to collect Cairo’s garbage, only mandating that 30% of it be recycled. Ultimately, Cairo’s informal recyclers, the Zabbeleen, out-competed foreign companies by working together to now collect 40% of Cairo’s waste, nearly 80% of which is recycled.

Cairo’s Zabbeleen are probably the world’s most successful examples of informal recyclers defining the municipal recycling system. The Zabbeleen are among Cairo’s Coptic Christian minority, and started collecting garbage in the 1930’s to feed organic waste to their pigs. Today, the community is located in the distant Cairene suburb of Moqattam, where they operate a micro enterprise that generates jobs and income for 40,000 people. Visit Moqattam and it is clear that the system is not perfect. Men deliver truck-loads full of garbage to their homes, where women and children sort it in the first story of their houses. They live among rats, pigs, and garbage which includes hospital waste. While the Zabbeleen are only slowly being accepted by mainstream Cairo, they are proud of their work. According to the Association for the Environment, a non-profit which helps create programs for the Zabbeleen, it is difficult for women in Moqattam to find a husband unless they begin working in the garbage industry. But as Christians and pig farmers, their personal pride, and their successful recycling rates have not impressed Sunni Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak recently ordered the slaughter of all of Egypt’s pigs after swine flu scares swept the world; despite that Egypt has not suffered a single swine flu case.

Discrimination against informal recyclers and others working in the streets is universal. In India, they are called ‘rag pickers,’ part of the ‘untouchables,’ India’s lowest cast. In Buenos Aires they are accused of crimes with little or no evidence. In Brazil, some recyclers will only work at night so as not to be identified by friends of family. Brazilian artisan Rita Aranha, who makes work with recycled materials, described how artisans are defined by their resources. Some artisans make works with clay. ‘In Rio de Janeiro,’ she said, ‘garbage is our resource.’ It is not surprising that Rio’s newly elected government, infamous for its brutality towards street-dwellers, has undertaken a new form of street cleaning: ousting sidewalk artisans and disposing of their homemade crafts.

It is easy to say that recycling is a good thing and that the world is in need of more comprehensive waste management strategies. Why, then, are the world’s informal recyclers so undervalued by the general public and, especially, by government institutions? Organizations like Slum/Shack Dwellers International assert that the world’s poor are universally perceived as having little contribution to society. Much like garbage, people assume that they merely sit and accumulate.
But garbage doesn’t sit. It breaks down, even explodes, transforms and responds. It is one of our most abundant and important resources, the merits of which we are only beginning to understand. With both garbage and poverty increasing dramatically around the world, it should also be a global priority that we set aside prejudices and begin to formulate development-based waste management models that employ informal recyclers while also alleviating systemic poverty.
In the US, informal recycling is minimal and technology is high. The rest of the world looks to us and to Europe for innovation in recycling. But perhaps it is time we begin to look at the social solutions starting to develop in countries where recycling happens because it has to.
Reuse Recycle Respect
Published in Street Roots and Garbage is Money in September, 2009

by Taylor Cass Stevenson
Zabbeleen recycler in Cairo
Transporting waste to the Garbage City, in Moqattam Cairo