Nestled in the sprawling capital of Egypt, the zabaleen, members of a minority Coptic Christian community, have made their living going door to door collecting, separating, and recycling the city's trash for the past 70 years. While most Western garbage collecting companies only achieve a 25 percent recycling rate, the zabaleen maximized efficiency—recycling 80 percent of the waste in Cairo—a city of 11 million people1.

Historically, the government gave the zabaleen a modest stipend to handle the city's trash. They collected it on trucks and donkey carts, sorted it in their neighborhood, sold it to factories and wholesales, and fed the remainders to their pigs.

A decade ago, the delicate balance of the zabaleen system was upset. The Mubarak regime placed waste collection in the hands of four corporate firms, cutting 65,000 zabaleen out of the process. Resilient as they were, the zabaleen continued to collect the trash from towering high-rise buildings, but for a fraction of the income. The zabaleen now had to compete with middlemen, NGOs and foreign corporations—literally over scraps.

Now, some zabaleen are starting to work within the system—gaining official status and protection as well as vehicles and uniforms. Others continue to work outside the corporate structure.

I propose a series of environmental portraits that document the zabaleen from Fall 2015 through Spring 2016. Looking through the window of this marginal population, I plan to show the struggle between tradition and modernity in Cairo and explore the environmental problems and solutions suggested by their experience. This story is about people—proud, innovative and resilient, but it is also about process—how top-down efforts towards progress sometimes inhibit organic human-scale efficiency. I hope to bring the same intimacy and rawness of my previous work.

I worked for a year and a half in Luxor and speak basic Arabic. I would use the summer to advance my Arabic and arrange a fixer to allow me access back to this community that I was fortunate enough to visit in 2010.

Sara Lafleur-Vetter
December 4, 2014


1The IWPAR Project (Project for Informal Waste Pickers and Recyclers)