Passion Points: Green/Eco
You might think that the world’s most effective recycling program would be in a high-tech, first world country backed by R&D funding and PhDs. Actually, it’s teenagers in a slum on the outskirts of Cairo who have a lot to teach the global green brigade. A daring new documentary, “Garbage Dreams: Raised in the Trash Trade,” reveals how for a century an ostracized community in the Muslim world’s largest metropolis has been eking out a living by gathering the city’s waste and how their rudimentary methods yield a much higher recycling rate than the more sophisticated ones implemented in the West.
For decades, Cairo has had no sanitation service, but relied on 60,000 Zaballeen, or “garbage people,” who ride on donkeys or on trucks collecting trash and bringing it back to their Garbage City, as its known. Living amidst enormous piles of refuse, the Zaballeen sort the discarded garbage into piles for recycling. They earn little, but in a country where almost half of the population survives on less than $2 a day, it’s a livelihood. Or has been.
“Garbage Dreams,” which was filmed over four years, follows three teenage boys who were raised in Mokottom, Cairo’s largest garbage city. Early in the film, one of the teenagers explains that the city’s population consists of the upper class, the middle class and the nothing class to which he belongs. He says it without self-pity; he believes it’s his fate. The Zaballeen pick up the trash and have for 100 years. They earn a pittance but survive. A threat to their survival, however, is what the drama of the film centers around. Since 2000, the Egyptian government has started to hire foreign disposal companies to replace the old-fashioned Zaballeen methods with a more modern system. As foreign workers come in with waste trucks and begin carting garbage to a nearby landfill, the Zaballeen see their way of life disappearing. “They don’t want our expertise,” says one of the boys, who sorts by hand and shreds cans and plastics with rudimentary tools. “This is a serious challenge for us. The city needs to understand that this work is all we know. We’ve been here for 100 years.”
The filmmaker, Mai Iskander, who is American but grew up spending time in her father’s native Egypt, first glimpsed the garbage city when she was 12. After attending film school and while she was beginning her career as a cinematographer, she volunteered to paint the Mokottom’s Recycling School. As she learned about the struggle that the Zaballeen faced from foreign contractors and came to know some of the area’s residents, she was inspired to share their story. “The Zaballeen have created what is arguably the world’s most effective resource recovery system,” she explains. “I hope that the film brings new awareness to the issue of trash/recycling but in a new way, not just as a pressing environmental issue, but as a global phenomenon and a way of survival for much of the planet’s poor.”
The film, which debuts at the SXSW festival next month in Austin, Texas, and may be shown in public schools next year will certainly stir up debate. While Iskander is not glorifying the unsanitary conditions that exist in the garbage city, she is making a case that their way of life supports tens of thousands of poor Egyptians and their skills can be implemented in other communities. In fact, when the boys travel abroad to England, they visit a state-of-the-art recycling center but discover that the mechanized sorting factory yields only 28% reuse. Closer to home, they visit landfills were waste that they would recycle is dumped by the foreign contractors. “Garbage has always been our work. If that gets taken from us, we will be without our daily bread, “says one of the boys. “We want to be able to live and dream like others.”
Read a Q&A with filmmaker Mai Iskander.
Learn more about Garbage Dreams.
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