Leaving rubbish, Manfredi Pantanella

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the world’s largest cities, more than 25 millions inhabitants which produces a lot of wastes. Until today an ad-lib urban plan did not menage the situation, living the city flooding in the trash. No chance. Luckily, Cairo has the Zabbaleen.

Photos by Manfredi Pantanella
Edited by Victor Anton

A view from the top of Moquattam hill of the Zabbaleen area. Here More than 80.000 people live thanks to the garbage. The 90% are Christian Coptic.

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the world’s largest cities, more than 25 millions inhabitants which produces a lot of wastes. Until today an ad-lib urban plan did not menage the situation, living the city flooding in the trash. No chance. Luckily, Cairo has the Zabbaleen.
The Zabbaleen are a religious minority of Coptic Christians who have served as Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for the past 80 years. Zabbaleen means “Garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic. Spread out among seven different settlements scattered in the Greater Cairo Urban Region, the Zabbaleen population is about 80,000. The largest settlement is in the village of Moqattam better known as the “Garbage City” which is located at the feet of the Moqattam Mountains, next to Manshiyat Naser, a Muslim squatter settlement where the 90 percent of the community of this region are of Christian faith followers.
For the past decades the Zabbaleen have supported themselves by collecting the trash,going door-to-door, for almost no charges.The Zabbaleens currently recycle, up to 80 percent of the collected waste, whereas only 25 percent is reused by Western garbage companies. Many sources agree that the Zabbaleen have created one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world, they collect up to 3,000 tons of garbage every day. The government authorities do not reward the Zabbaleen for their actions, instead has created a privatized system of waste collection, which is threatening the socio-economic sustainability of the Zabbaleen community.

The Egyptian government announced its plans to modernise and ‘Westernise’ the city’s waste management system, claiming the Zabbaleen’s methods were backward and unhygienic. This is not entirely false. Although conditions are improving, diseases such as hepatitis are common. This is hardly surprising when rubbish, including sharp metal, broken glass, and hospital waste such as syringes, is sorted by hand. However, the Zabbaleen were joined by many international aid agencies in protesting that the only way to lift them out of poverty was to allow them to keep their jobs as the city’s rubbish collectors. In a country with a 10.8% unemployment rate and with 20% of the population living in poverty, they had a point.

The three European companies hired to clean up Cairo cost $50 million a year, and recycled at best 25% of the waste they collected. The companies offered to hire the Zabbaleen as collectors, but offered as little as a dollar a day, half what a Zabbaleen can earn working for himself. However, the privatisation system has failed, leaving the city with litter-strewn streets and the continued use of the unsanitary landfill sites. Some have claimed that all the new modernisation initiatives have done is inspire a new generation of street waste collectors.

The main street of Moquattam.A woman with children burning garbage.

Man working in a clotheshanger’s atelier. All the final products are obtained from recycled materials.

A boy Inside a building doing door to door collection.

Young plastic worker.

A Glass collector infront of his factory in Zabbaleen’s area. They recycling the 80% of the rubbish they collect.

A Zabbaleen collecting garbage in the city in the nightime, looking for useful trash in the bin of a formal dustman.

An Old woman in her House. She collect organic rubbish to survive since his husband died with a poisoned needle. A lot of hospital trash were deposed in this area.

Countless fragments of plastic inside a factory in Moquattam. Many Zabbaleen suffer health problems such as hepatitis, throats and breathing problems.


Manfredi Pantanella was born in 1985.

He lives between Rome and Paris. He attended The “Centro Sperimetale di Fotografia” of Rome and the “Ecole Superieure de Photographie et d’ Audiovisuel” of Paris. He work on stories about subcultures and documentary photography.

He has worked as an assistant for Reza (National Geographic Fellow). 

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