Mokattam to Monmoushire:
challenges to 21st-century recycling

Monmouthshire recycling professional David Roman explores what can be learnt from the work of the Zaballeen – Coptic Christians traditionally responsible for rubbish collection in Cairo.


Cairo is one of the world’s mega cities, and Africa’s most populous, with sprawling suburbs reaching out into the surrounding desert. It has boomed in the last century or so, while supporting infrastructure has not always kept up. Throughout this time a large part of the city’s waste management services have been provided (free of charge) by the Zaballeen, Coptic Christians who went into pig farming in a largely Muslim country and from there went into recycling. In the early 20th century this meant waste paper sold on as a cooking fuel or to heat public baths. More recently this has meant marketing metals and plastics in a form that manufacturers can use as raw materials.

Nabil started recycling collections on a donkey-drawn cart at the age of seven. Adham learnt at an early age how to apply a large pair of shears and a lump hammer to cans to separate aluminium bases from steel bodies. Their neighbourhood is Mokattam, known as ‘Garbage City’, where 60,000 people live and work. Potentially recyclable material is traditionally brought in on carts, vans and trucks, sorted by hand, then processed: food waste is fed to animals; cans are separated and flattened; and plastics are sorted into different types, washed and granulated. All of this takes place in a densely populated residential area, often in the same building as families’ living space. Mokattam is some way from the commercial centre of Cairo. This is one of the main recycling areas, where the Zaballeen have been settled for generations…

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