The Film

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INSIDE GARBAGE DREAMS
Two teenage Zaballeen boys stand with full garbage bags slung over their shoulders.
The characters in the film catch us up on what has happened since filming ended. Sorry, that pizza box isn’t recyclable. Get the scoop on what belongs in your recycling bin. See if you can match the efficiency of the Zaballeen.

“Expertly weaving personal fears, family tensions, and political action, GARBAGE DREAMS records the tremblings of a culture at a crossroads.” —New York Times

On the outskirts of Cairo lies the world's largest garbage village. A labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash, the village is home to 60,000 Zaballeen — Arabic for "garbage people." The Zaballeen have survived for centuries by recycling Cairo's waste. Members of Egypt's minority Coptic Christian community, these entrepreneurial garbage workers recycle nearly all the trash they collect, maintaining what could be the world’s most efficient waste disposal system.

Three Zaballeen boys sit amongst colorful bags of recycled materials.
Photo: Mai Iskander

Zaballeen boys learn the craft of granulating plastic bottles.
Photo: Christine, 11 years old, for Kids with Cameras

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?”

Update

Filmmaker Mai Iskander provided this update on the plight of the Zaballeen since filming ended:

Photo: Marina S., 10 years old, for Kids with Cameras

A bird's-eye view of the Zaballeen’s village of Mokattam, with tall buildings towering over the road.
Photo: Gigie Cruz/GAIA

Unfortunately, the ability of the Zaballeen to both acquire and process Cairo’s garbage has become harder in the last few years. Cairo’s Zaballeen are still locked out of the trash trade by the multinational companies that arrived on the scene several years ago as part of the Egyptian government’s failed attempt to overhaul the municipal waste management system.

Five years after the multinationals took over, it has become abundantly clear that the privatized waste management system is not working.

One of the multinational companies’ contract was terminated because it failed to keep Cairo's streets clean. With time, it became evident to the two remaining multinationals that they did not have the capacity to manage all of Cairo’s garbage or find a large permanent constant work force. As a result, the foreign waste companies started to contract some Zaballeen, allowing them access to the garbage in return for their garbage collections service. While these Zaballeen are pleased to once again have access to the garbage, they have not regained any percentage of the fees residents paid for their garbage collection service.

Egypt's recent decision to cull the nation’s nearly 350,000 pigs (in an attempt to prevent an outbreak of swing flu in Egypt) wiped out a vital source of income for Zaballeen that came from raising pigs who fed off organic waste.

While the current economic outlook for the Zaballeen appears bleak, with garbage piling higher every day and with increasing pressure being put on the government to clean up Cairo’s streets, there is undoubtedly growing international and national interest in the Zaballeen’s industrious and innovative recycling practices.

Learn more about the people in the film and find out where they are now >>

Read about the making of GARBAGE DREAMS >>

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