Not far outside the main area of Cairo, Egypt, is a city of trash.

And the citizens of Garbage City, as it's called, are surprisingly happy. Only one thing really seems to worry them: the thought that their livelihood dealing in Cairo’s trash will be taken away.

Different families in Garbage City focus on different sorts of trash. Some deal in metals, some in plastic bottles, some in paper — sorting each group into “sellable” and “unsellable.” Anything that can be reused or recycled is saved. Carts pulled by donkeys ply the streets, stacked sometimes 10 feet high with recyclables.

These expert dumpster-divers are known as Zabbaleen, that’s “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, and they recycle an amazing 80 percent of the waste they collect, compared with a mere 25 percent among garbage companies in Western cities.      

The Zabbaleen, who live mostly at the southern end of Manshiyat Naser ward, are consummate outsiders — and not just because they collect refuse for a living. They are Christians in a city of Muslims, and pig-farmers in a society that reviles swine.

But these outsiders do Cairo an enormous favor. For going on 80 years, they’ve collected, sorted and disposed of the solid waste of one of the world’s largest cities.

Children of the Zabbaleen in Cairo

For the Zabbaleen, garbage isn't just a lifestyle, it’s an identity. (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

With a population of around 25 million, Cairo makes mountains and mountains of solid waste every day. And the city’s 80,000 Zabbaleen are thankful for every bit of it, as are the many thousands of pigs that live among them.

They use the pigs to get rid of rotting food, which the animals are happy to eat. Women sit in the midst of a trash heap picking through the junk, tossing them decayed bits of fruit or meat.

As you’d expect, it’s a life of appalling smells and sights, but the Zabbaleen don’t mind. In fact, as they’re proud to admit, trash isn’t just a lifestyle, it’s an identity.    

An identity, however, that’s in constant peril of being taken away. The people of Cairo, even the government of Egypt itself, all seem to want the Zabbaleen gone.

Back in 2009, when swine flu was running rampant in many places, the Egyptian government decided to do away with all Egypt’s pigs, even though there was no swine flu there at the time. Some 300,000 pigs were slaughtered.

The country’s pig farmers, largely Zabbaleen and almost entirely Christian, were up in arms. They saw the move as an existential threat. The World Health Organization said Egypt’s decision had no scientific basis, and the United Nations called it “a real mistake.”

Before long, the government admitted that the pig-slaughter wasn’t about staving off a swine-flu epidemic. It was the first move, they said, in a plan to “clean up” the Zabbaleen.

It wasn’t the first time Egypt’s government had tried this. A few years before, government officials decided to contract out Cairo’s waste disposal to local companies. But the companies were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of waste, while the Zabbaleen largely went on doing what they’ve always done. For their efforts, they got little thanks from Cairo’s residents, who otherwise would have ended up living in a city of trash.

A possible solution

Ultimately the nationwide pig cull had a disastrous effect on the Zabbaleen. It nearly brought their community and Cairo’s trash collection to a halt. Both have picked up again since 2009, but things are not the same.

The Zabbaleen, for their part, don’t insist on living the way they have since the 1940s. Some of them advocate a simple step that could make a huge difference — and possibly make everyone in Cairo happy.

If the city’s denizens would commit to separating their organic from inorganic waste, the pigs could be confined to farms and raised somewhere out of the way. The organic waste could simply be brought to them.

So far, the people of Cairo and the government have seemed uninterested. But with a revolution and three different governments in place since 2011, it’s understandable if residents haven't been open to further change, even one as simple as separating their garbage. However, the newest government, led by former Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has proven it’s willing to change things. (Take for example the removal of a gas subsidy that seemed permanent, even as it bankrupted the state.)

As Cairo’s garbage situation continues to worsen, it's possible that the Zabbaleen will get their way – and finally get some respect.

You can learn more about them in the video below:

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In Garbage City, trash is a way of life
The Zabbaleen keep Cairo's garbage in check by recycling 80 percent of what they collect — an incredible feat by any standard. But not everyone is happy.