Just outside of Cairo is the world’s largest garbage village, where 60,000 “Zaballeen” – Arabic for “garbage people” – spend their days sifting and recycling the trash generated by the 18 million residents of Egypt’s capital city.

The residents of Cairo depend on the Zaballeen to collect and manage their waste, but they don’t pay them much. The Zaballeen make the money they need to survive by recycling. Their methods may be low-tech, but the people of Mokattam run what may just be the world’s most efficient waste disposal system, finding innovative ways to recycle almost any kind of material.

Filmed over four years, the documentary Garbage Dreams follows three residents of this village of trash – Adham, a bright precocious 17-year-old; Osama, a charming impish 16-year-old and Nabil, a shy artistic 18-year-old – as they try to adapt to Cairo’s decision to privatize garbage services.

Born into the trash trade, Adham, Osama and Nabil must make some difficult decisions after the city awards annual contracts to three private companies to pick up Cairo’s garbage. Though their trucks are shiny and their factories are modern, the companies are contractually obligated to recycle only 20 percent of the city’s waste – a big change from the Zaballeen’s impressive 80 percent recycling rate.

Director Mai Iksander has high hopes for the teens, who dream of finding good jobs, making homes of their own and even modernizing the recycling trade.

“I filmed these fantastic teens daily scavenging for tiny bits of cardboard and plastic. I was amazed by the hard, dangerous, dreary work of carrying and sorting garbage with their bare hands, spending hours breathing in the dust of the plastic granulators and gabric grinders, while making a tiny living from tiny bits of trash. Day after day, they would work diligently and proudly without complaint and without self-pity,” she said.

“From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.”

Garbage Dreams will be screened from Aug. 14–20 at the Arclight Hollywood Theater in Los Angeles. Visit GarbageDreams.com for show times and additional screening dates.

MNN homepage photo: Garbage Dreams/Flickr

'Garbage Dreams' film follows Egypt's teenage trash recyclers
Egypt’s 'garbage people' have become experts at recycling every material possible, but their way of life is threatened by the globalization of their trade.