In the very early hours of the morning, before sunrise, a well-groomed man crept, shyly, towards the rubbish bin, searching for something, moving quickly from one bag to another to find what he was looking for. In today’s Egypt, as soon as you throw your garbage bag into the bin, a hand will reach out for it, tear it open and scatter the contents on the ground in search for a piece of aluminium, plastic or cardboard, and perhaps a piece of bread or some leftover food.
The same scene is repeated daily across the country. Sometimes it is a young man, sometimes a beggar; and sometimes it is a woman covering her face with a niqab, an old woman. Many sift through the rubbish bins, a symptom of declining living conditions and the worsening economic situation.
This is no longer something confined to “rummagers” who search through solid waste and collect recyclable products to sell on. Others have joined them from classes that have been knocked into poverty by unemployment and high prices; they are now unable to secure their basic food needs, hence the search through other people’s garbage bags.
The streets of Cairo, and other Egyptian cities have turned into sorting centres for thousands of rummagers who roam the streets on foot, by tuk-tuk or donkey-drawn carts, and scatter the contents of the rubbish bins lined up in the streets before sorting through the contents. According to the Ministry of Local Development, there are an estimated 1.5 million rummagers, but there may be many more as other social groups fall into the poverty trap. There is, after all, money to be made from selling recyclable items.
The rummagers can earn around 5,000 Egyptian pounds (about $160) a month if they are in working class neighbourhoods, or about 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($323) if they work in better off neighbourhoods, according to Shehata Meqaddes, the head of the Independent Union for Garbage Collectors. The number of rubbish bins on the streets, as well as the means of transportation, can also affect earnings, as could having somewhere to store items before selling them to a scrap dealer.
Ten per cent of rubbish in the bins is solid waste, and rummagers sort 9.5 per cent of it, according to Engineer Osama El-Khouly, the former Chairman of the Nahdet Misr Environmental Services Company, which is affiliated with the Egyptian contracting giant, Arab Contractors.
Rummagers are stationed in six areas within Greater Cairo, which are considered to be collection and sorting centres: Manshiyet Nasser, Ard Al-Liwa, Al-Barajil, Al-Wahda al-Wataniyya, Mayo and Al-Khusus. This does not mean that this work is limited to the people of these areas, especially with new groups joining the sector daily.
Garbage villages have spread across Egypt’s governorates. They are places where scrap items and garbage are collected and sorted, such as Meet Shammas in Giza (near the capital); the village of Sharhi in Beni Suef (centre); Al-Ruwaigat in Assiut; and Abar Al-waqf in Sohag (south of the country).
In addition to the rummagers, shepherds are known to benefit from the garbage sorting process by letting their goats and sheep scour through the garbage and eat leftovers as an alternative to fodder. The latter has increased in price significantly in the local market, so seeing goats and sheep on garbage dumps is a common sight in many Egyptian neighbourhoods.
It should be noted that foreign companies withdrew from the waste clearance system in Egypt years ago because of the growing number of rummagers and their takeover of the garbage market. The rubbish that litters the streets in Egypt despite 71,000 workers employed in the cleansing sector by the government is a waste of wealth, the value of which is estimated at a staggering $5 billion, although this figure is disputed by the government and private cleaning companies.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that garbage in Egypt is among the most valuable in the world in terms of content. Organic materials, plastic, aluminium, copper, paper, glass, cloth, tin and batteries can all be found. The price per tonne can be 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($200) according to a scientific study by the Land, Water and Environment Research Institute, a government institution affiliated with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.
More than 75 million tonnes of garbage are thrown away annually in Egypt. The governorates of Greater Cairo (Cairo, Giza and Qalyubia) produce about 22 million tonnes annually. Cairo’s garbage alone can provide 120,000 job opportunities in sorting, collection and recycling operations, according to the same study.
The prices of waste vary from one material to another, the most important of which is red copper, which is a treasure for garbage collectors, as its value per kilogram is around 240 pounds ($8); a kilo of brass is worth 220 pounds ($7), while the price of a kilo of aluminium can be 40 pounds ($1.30). Tin cans are also worth 40 pounds per kg, while a kilo of plastic mineral water bottles is worth 26 pounds ($8). At weddings and other celebrations, especially in the Egyptian countryside, it is common to find a boy or girl collecting cans or picking up empty water bottles. It is, after all, a way for them to make a living from what other people throw away.
Families have become more aware of this and are starting to profit from collecting and selling empty bottles, broken plastic containers and cardboard when the trucks with loudspeakers come to their local streets to collect and buy anything that is old and used. There is a hierarchy of sorts in the garbage collection business. Families may sort their own rubbish, then security guards of blocks of apartments sort through what the tenants throw away; then the rummagers sort through what ends up in the communal bins. Then the authorities supervise the garbage dumps and sanitary landfills.
According to a former government official who preferred to remain anonymous, the restaurants located in the upscale areas are a favourite destination for rummagers and others in search of leftovers. This makes sense when we look at the official data issued by the Ministry of Finance: a social security pension is 404 Egyptian pounds ($13) per month for one person; 450 pounds ($15) per month for a family of two; 516 pounds ($17) for a family of three; and 563 pounds ($18) per month for a family of four or more. Meanwhile, the “solidarity and dignity” pension, which targets families suffering from extreme poverty, is 530 pounds ($17) per month.
An Egyptian economist asked me — again, on condition of anonymity — “How are these government pensions meeting the food needs of families, when they are not even enough if they have fava bean and falafel sandwiches for all three meals?” This, he added, is why talking about people digging through the garbage in search of leftovers has become “normal”.
So why are Egyptians digging in the garbage bins? Simple: they want to survive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.