Dr Leila Iskandar from BBC image
Dr Leila Iskandar from BBC image

“To us garbage is gold!!”  This was the astonishing statement of  Egyptian social entrepreneur Laila Iskandar at the beginning of her presentation on a community of  garbage workers and recyclers in Cairo with whom she works.   Everyone in the room knew that poorer people in many countries make a living by searching through rubbish to find materials they can sell or trade.   The Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire has of course, introduced millions to this way of life.   I admit however,  that I  never thought of this activity as mining for gold!    So I visited the garbage collectors/recyclers community in Cairo to find out what she meant.

Americans today are used to “mixed” communities  in the sense that while people who earn similar amounts of money may live in the same neighborhood we usually do not expect everyone in the community to have the same job, although there are exceptions.  I have a friend who lives in an area with lots of police and firefighters. The closest American example might be steel towns and mining communities but these  are increasingly rare.  In addition, the formation of these communities was  driven by the factory and industry owners. The owners built a workplace and employed the people. In Cairo the community of people who collect the  garbage are not employed by a company. This means that while they  live near their work they have built up a community without the support of an employer but also without the control.   Since  there is no company, no one is laid off or fired and everyone is free to work together and help each other and that is what they have done.

The garbage workers that Laila referred to in her speech live in a hill far removed from most Cairenes and certainly out of the sight of tourists.  In the past they found bits and pieces and sold  it to the appropriate client:  rags to rag collectors, plastic to plastic collectors  and so on.  But some years ago they organized themselves into a kind of collective with the help of a Cairo non-profit organization of which Laila is a board member.  Working together and possessing labor-saving equipment, their clients now include corporate entities who provide them with a higher income.  The men and women elected to work separately.   I watched a group of young men cleaning and putting small green plastic into sacks for a corporate customer.  This was stage six of a process that began with identifying and separating plastic into colors.  Were it not for the garbage workers,  the companies would have to go into a landfill and find the material themselves. So this is something the companies need.  Although it may have been the charity that negotiated the contract, it was the garbage collectors who brought the knowledge of the recycling, which is the heart of the operation.    As a result, this is a fruitful  partnership that  helps Egypt environmentally and provides income for the local community.

When I heard Laila’s speech I thought that the “gold” was only represented by the increased income but after my visit I realise that there is more to the story.   The collection and recycling operation finishes with shops containing recycled products produced in the community.   The paper recycling operation produced lovely stationery with delicate designs fit for any boutique stationery store.  Individual cards with pharaonic motifs and Christmas cards (80% of the community is Christian but everyone is eligible for employment as long as they live locally) are designed by an on site professional.   The rags are turned into beautiful quilts and rag dolls. Fine embroidery is made by the woman who have been  taught by an expert.  They also produce high quality carpets from a series looms in a separate building on a “compound” where the school is also located.   I watched young girls putting precision fastenings on rag rugs.   Computers are also recycled with the collectors dismantling, separating the parts and then reassembling usable parts for computer donation and parts reuse. Since they live and work in the same area, schools have popped up and so has a clinic staffed by volunteers who provide top class care.  Flexibility is built into the system so those who prefer or need to work at home can do so.

It was emphasized to me what a remarkable transformation this has been both for the community and the individuals in it.  In the beginning when the garbage collectors made this area their home,  they had no roads.  Later  a sympathetic parliamentarian obtained permission for streets to be made out of pathways that makes getting home and delivering materials so much easier.  People whose only skills were sifting filthy materials from garbage heaps now earn much more from their hard work (facilitated by machines). They learn practical skills and have access to education. The office manager is a stunning case in point.  Ten years ago she was separating rags now she keeps track of orders on excel.  This is the other side of the gold coin.

While we were walking through the narrow  streets of the area I was thinking that without knowledge of what was happening behind the scenes, I might have felt depressed for the people living there.  But when I saw the faces of the young men cleaning the plastic and the women drying recycled paper and making carpets I realized that I could not judge their physical environment alone.   These are people on a mission and they are making a  future for themselves.  Perhaps you will find that “who collects the garbage here?” is a more interesting question than it might appear.