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The zabbaleen still collect about 8,000 tons — more than half the daily output — and the companies about 3,000, leaving much of the remaining 6,000 tons on the streets , a lot dumped in the canals and some in the Nile River that flows through the capital.
The surrounding desert makes a useful trash bin and the government operates a half-dozen dumps which anyone can use for a fee. The private companies have their own landfills next to composting plants in outlying cities around Cairo. But only about 3 percent of the trash they gather is recycled, according to a government study cited by Iskandar.
So far, the zabbaleen say, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, like the Mubarak regime, show every sign of ignoring them in favor of developing a new garbage system. They say Morsi’s administration didn’t consult with the biggest community of zabbaleen about the volunteer clean-up campaign or ask them to be part of it.
"We only heard talk of it," said Romani, a Christian collector in the Manshiet Nasr garbage city, who requested partial anonymity because he fears his community’s livelihood is threatened. "It seems they want to take my bread and butter," he said. "This would kill me."
Egypt’s Christian minority, around 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people, as a whole is worried that its livelihood would suffer under Islamist rule but so far the sectarian issue has not overtly come up in the garbage issue. El-Senoussi insists it is not a factor in his government’s thinking about modernizing the trade.
Romani was sitting in one of the hundreds recycling workshops that lined the small street of this garbage city. Trucks rumbled in and out. Men and women sat outside their homes amid piles of garbage and mounds of plastic, cardboards and tin cans to be sifted through.
Iskandar, the waste management expert, worries the zabbaleen are sidelined because they are poor and associated with a low-class calling. "These are investors, businessmen," she said. "But (officials) laugh at us. Since they are not companies traded in the stock market and they are not men in suits."
Youssef Farid of Spirit of Youth, an NGO that helps the zabbaleen and is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said sidelining the traditional collectors threatens to repeat previous the government’s mistakes.
He said a government representative agreed to meet his group but never showed up. El-Senoussi, who manages Morsi’s cleanup campaign, said there was a mixup and no intention of harming the zabbaleen. He said he met with other groups of collectors. "We are dealing with all the stakeholders," he said. "But we must find solutions that develop the system."
Zabbaleen recycling is very basic and only operates in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, while the rest of the country has even more rudimentary systems. With the planned reforms, "We are talking about something that would benefit the whole country not just individuals," said el-Senoussi.
"People have a right to a clean life," he said. "We can get rid of garbage and benefit the country."
Back at Ahmed Zaki Street, having dumped their bag of trash, Ahmed’s mother, Noura Abdel-Salam, said there was plenty more back home.
"We have to walk all this way ourselves to dump our garbage," she said. "We pay the government and the collectors and end up doing it ourselves."
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