The Zabaleen (Arabic for “garbage people”) in Egypt recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect, but now multinational corporations threaten their livelihood. (1:09)
Filmed over four years, GARBAGE DREAMS follows three teenage boys born into the Zaballeen's trash trade: 17-year-old Adham, 16-year-old Osama, and 18-year-old Nabil. Laila, a community activist who also teaches the boys at their neighborhood Recycling School, guides the boys as they transition into adulthood at a time when the Zaballeen community is at a crossroads.
With a population of 18 million, Cairo — the largest city in the Middle East and Africa — has no sanitation service. For generations, the city’s residents have paid the Zaballeen a minimal amount to collect and recycle their garbage. Each day, the Zaballeen collect more than 4,000 tons of garbage and bring it for processing in their village, where plastic granulators, cloth-grinders, and paper and cardboard compactors hum constantly. As the world's capacity to generate trash skyrockets, Western cities boast of 30 percent recycling rates — admirable, until you compare it with the 80 percent recycling rate the Zaballeen can claim.
In 2003, following the international trend to privatize services, Cairo sold multimillion dollar contracts to three corporations to pick up the city's garbage. Shimmering waste trucks now line the streets, but these multinational waste disposal corporations are only contractually obligated to recycle 20 percent of what they collect, leaving the rest to rot in giant landfills. As these foreign companies came in with waste trucks and begin carting garbage to nearby landfills, the Zaballeen watched their way of life disappearing.
Suddenly faced with the globalization of their trade, Adham and Osama are each forced to make choices that will impact their futures and the survival of the Zaballeen community. Activist Laila sighs with despair: “They don’t see that we are poor people living off of trash. What are we suppose to do now?”