Speaking on her experiences as the former minister of urban renewal and informal settlements in Cairo, Egypt, where materials discarded by the rich constitute the informal waste-management industry of the urban poor, Laila Iskandar’s seminar referenced one of Egypt’s six principle recycling neighborhoods, Manchiyet Nasser, and the waste management system carried out there by its inhabitants.
Iskandar began the presentation by illustrating the sorting and recycling systems of the city’s waste managers, called the Zabbaleen. Clarifying that the operators of these on-the-ground sorting and recycling enterprises are not ‘garbage-collectors’, rather harvesters of materials discarded in consumption cycles, Iskandar noted that these neighbourhoods are strategically inhabited closest to areas where materials of ‘waste’ are typically generated. In these neighbourhoods, homes are designed to accommodate sorting and recycling on the ground floor so as to provide income, while living quarters are situated on higher levels of the building.
According to Iskandar, such systems are socially constructed, arise from the organic relationships between the people and the city and, perhaps most importantly, provide the urban poor with livelihoods, occupations, income and opportunities for economic growth. Through their work, the Zabbaleen represent the first link in a complex chain in which unpaid labour subsidises the cleanliness of the city. To complete these processes of waste management, Iskandar noted, key skills are required, such as the assessment of material composition and quantities, as well as an understanding of the technology used, market–price relationships and family-owned business models. To this extent, recognising the key actors and the barriers that they face in terms of formalisation and land and labour issues is a fundamental aspect to valuing emerging markets such as these.
To conclude her seminar, Iskandar called for the importance of recognising the disconnect between planning practices that attempt to formalise the waste workers’ industry and their constructed informal realities, emphasising that appropriately designing for the Zabbaleen is crucial to keeping Cairo clean.