Kings Canyon Range in central Australia is kind of near Ayres Rock. It’s actually 323 km from Alice Springs, but this is considered “neighbouring” in this vast desert. In 1994 when I was there, there were no hotels, no motorway services and no supermarkets. You carried your petrol with you and you camped along the way, until you hit the next town.
I came down from a day’s hiking in the canyon in 1994 and I was amazed to find there in the “car park” – really just a levelled out bit of scrub – three large old oil drums, with signs above them, one saying “Glass”, one “Plastic” and the other “All other waste”.
Seeing as we hadn’t seen another soul for about four days, this seemed an incredibly optimistic attempt at encouraging recycling. We certainly didn’t even have such a visible, robust recycling system in England those days, so good on ‘em for effort!
The plastic police of Portugal
A few years back I went WOOFING, which is not anything to do with dogs, it stand for Willing Workers On Organic Farms! I ended up dragging old oil drums up hills to make water fall faster downhill, making paths and putting up tepees in 90 degrees heat. The community there was really special, and it was easy to make friends.
The beaches there are really spectacular, and attract a lot of surfers due to the Atlantic rollers that cruise in day after day.
The amazing thing is that there isn’t a scrap of rubbish to be seen on the beaches – unnaturally so. This is because the whole town organises its own beach cleans and every two weeks they comb the sands, making sure that there’s nothing that can be used again on the beach (such as rope, net, wood etc). Any other waste is taken away to be properly recycled at the official depot. They even enjoy doing it and make it into a real social event – wonder if it would catch on in the UK?
Angels with dirty faces
However, in Cairo, Egypt, there isn’t an official recycling department but there is a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to work with trash. With a population of between 16 and 18 million people in Cairo alone, they need some kind of trash removal, so the “Zabbaleen”, or the “garbage people” in Arabic, have taken the job on.
60,000 Zabbaleen are not employed by the government and despite providing a crucial benefit to everyone in the city, are looked down on by society. Their work means that they are often illiterate people, with no educational opportunity, so their work is rather a necessity, but it takes the meaning of “one man’s trash is another one’s treasure” to the extreme. A lot of them suffer health problems due to working so closely with the rubbish.
They collect the rubbish by hand, on donkey carts, taking mountains of it to their local neighbourhood to sort it all –again by hand – all 4,000 tonnes of it per day.
Once it is sorted, it can then be sold to recyclers, so the recycling rate there is 80 to 90% of all the waste, which is astonishing considering even organised Western societies, who pour millions of pounds into recycling programmes, only manage to recycle 30% max.
Where there’s muck there’s brass
To be fair the Egyptian government has attempted to put private trucks in Cairo, but they can’t even compare to the efficiency and thoroughness of the Zabbaleen who have been sustaining themselves on Cairo’s waste for half a century. They are fully adapted to the rhythm and social codes of the city and so this informal system has survived all attempts to out-mode it.
The recycling happens in the large suburban slum of Moqattam, where most of the Zabbaleen reside, where there is literally a whole micro-enterprise of little workshops.
Here you find a rubber specialist, ripping all rubber trims and shoes apart. Or, a lady sorting through piles of old yogurt pots, sorting the polypropylene from the polyethylene ones. Bottle tops, plastic bottles, wood, glass, cans, fabric, cardboard, you name it, they can sort it. Where there’s muck, there’s brass, indeed.
What kind of recycling “methods” have you seen on your travels, and which country in your opinion, is the best at it?