MENA • Urban sustainability & waste valorization: the case of Cairo’s waste disposal system

As cities of the urban South are rapidly expanding, they are confronted with an increasing number of environmental issues. Waste disposal is one of them for it can heavily affect air quality, contaminate water, spread diseases, etc, and also has severe consequences on urban public health. Since urban sustainability is at the top of the international political agenda, more pressure is put on the governments of fast-growing cities to deal with the problem of waste quickly and efficiently, and many foreign multinationals are called in to modernize the waste disposal system as in Cairo, Egypt, even though a local and efficient (but informal) system exists, taken in charge by the urban poor.

The solid waste disposal system in Cairo: an informal and well organized system

In Cairo, most of the solid waste disposal system is largely managed by an efficient informal system and not by the municipality as in most cities. Informal waste picking dates from the 1880s, when Muslim migrants, the Waahis, began picking waste from households for a small fee. Afterwards, in the 1930s, freshly arrived Coptic migrants from Upper Egypt, called Zabbaleen, joined the very organized informal waste system. The Zabbaleen collect waste from the streets, shops or households, and then sell it to intermediaries who process it and sell the more valuable material to recycling firms or industrial plants, while the Waahis own small waste companies and sell collection rights per area to the Zabbaleen. These waste pickers are generally marginalized populations because waste picking is not considered an honorable profession by higher social groups, thus ensuring a certain level of job security.

Benefits of an informal waste management system

Until the years 2000, the waste sector was largely ignored by municipal authorities of Cairo because it worked well. Considered as one of the most efficient models in the world, the Cairote systems recovers about 80% of the waste collected and provides work for 50,000 people in the Greater Cairo area.

The informal waste sector in Cairo makes more profit than the formal one, because it focuses on materials with higher added value, such as metal, plastic, cardboard, etc. The ultimate goal of the waste pickers is to earn a living, so they tend to choose waste that is sorted, recycled and reprocessed to make money. On the other hand, the formal sector collects and disposes of the waste because it is considered as an incommodity rather than a potential valuable product. Thanks to those informal channels, municipalities do not have many costs in garbage collection, since door to door collection is already done by the street pickers. Disposal costs are also reduced, since there is less garbage to manage. In Cairo, the municipality saves about 14.47 millions of euros every year owing to the informal waste system.

The benefits of informal waste management are also ecological and environmental. Recycling waste uses less energy to extract and transform raw material, and reduces landfill space and the direct pollution of outdoor dumps. Waste collection by foot or with draft animals saves fossil energy that would have otherwise been used by motorized transport to collect garbage. In spite of that, informal waste management does not live up to perfect environmental standards because in selecting the waste, the pickers are also scattering disposable waste.

The 2003 reform: optimizing the system, but for whom?

The Cairote waste system was reformed in 2003, encouraged by a wave of privatizations and a worldwide trend of entrusting urban utility services to private companies via public-private partnerships (e.g. wave of privatizations in Latin America in the 1990s: Buenos Aires, La Paz). As the informal pickers focus mainly on upper and middle-income neighborhoods that generate more valuable waste, many of the low-income areas and slums that had build up due to the rapid urbanization did not have access to a waste collection service. The informal system was prohibited and the private companies were to take in charge those areas. However due to economic unfeasibility and the streets too small for trucks, waste collection was difficult and the companies ultimately pulled out of those neighborhoods, aggravating the waste problem and the environmental nuisance.

Not only did waste become a serious environmental issue in the Egyptian capital, it also had economic repercussions on the informal waste pickers. The 2003 reform deprived the traditional pickers of their livelihood. The Waahis, who own small registered waste companies, lost their licenses, and the Zabbaleen who informally worked for them lost the entitlement to collect and recycle Cairo’s waste. The waste pickers thus lost a part of their earnings and job security. They are now in competition with the multinationals for the waste resource and their life conditions considerably lowered.

Merging the informal and formal systems for enhanced urban sustainability

A new policy was therefore designed in 2009, the National Solid Waste Management Program, and strongly implemented since 2012 under President Morsi’s mandate. Its objective is to address the environmental issue waste was causing in Cairo, to improve its economic potential and to create employment for thousands of workers. The government is currently working on giving a formal status to the Waahis and Zabbaleen so as to integrate them to the current formal system via unions and local NGOs that syndicate the waste pickers. The ultimate goal is to optimize the collecting system by fully using that workforce. This entails providing a safer working environment, health insurance and agreements so the pickers do not have to compete for the resource with bigger multinationals, as well as cooperation between the pickers, intermediaries and private companies.

Waste as a resource and not only an urban incommodity

Urban waste management is a crucial part of urban sustainability and an environmentally friendly city. When waste becomes a highly valued resource and not only an incommodity, waste disposal and environmental policies are more effectively implemented, with stronger social and economic outputs. The informal system in Cairo can be considered as a form of environmental entrepreneurship (private company that conserves resources and improves livelihoods) and has provided the Egyptian capital with its own unique and functional model of an eco-city. As environmental issues are high on the international political agenda, many waste management systems are imported from Western countries for considered as models. But the Cairote case shows that local solutions for waste disposal already exist in fast-growing metropolises and these solutions are functional. The challenge is therefore to optimize existing urban environmental systems and to make them fully sustainable.


Article written by  Sofia MORGAVI


Martin Medina, The informal recycling sector in developing countries. Organizing waste pickers to enhance their impact, Gridlines, Note No 44, Oct. 2008

Berti Shaker, Structural Integration of the Informal Sector in Municipal Solid Waste Management, NSWMP / GIZ Egypt

Ellen Gunsilius, Bharati Chaturvedi, Anne Scheinberg, The Economics of the Informal Sectorin Solid Waste Management, CWG (Collaborative Working Group on Solid Waste Management in Low- and Middle-income Countries) and GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit

Sanjay K. Gupta, Integrating the informal sector for improved waste management,

Maike Didero, Cairo’s Informal Waste Collectors: A Multi-Scale and Conflict Sensitive Perspective on Sustainable Livelihoods, Erdkunde (2012), Vol. 66, No. 1,27–44


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