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  • Meet Cairo's Zaballeen, who recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect.

    Meet Cairo's Zaballeen, who recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect.

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  • Adham and Nabil carrying garbage

    Adham and Nabil carrying garbage

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  • Adham, 17 years old, one of teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

    Adham, 17 years old, one of teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

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  • Osama, 16 years old, one of the teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

    Osama, 16 years old, one of the teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

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  • Nabil, 18 years old, one of the teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

    Nabil, 18 years old, one of the teenage boys featured in Garbage Dreams

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  • Adham and Nabil sorting shampoo bottles at the recycling school

    Adham and Nabil sorting shampoo bottles at the recycling school

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  • The recycling school

    The recycling school

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The Film

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.” Long before today’s “green” initiatives, the Zaballeen have survived 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.

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 Adham and Osama 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 compacters hum constantly. They recycle 80 percent of what they collect.

In 2003, following the international trend to privatize services, Cairo sold multi-million-dollar contracts to three corporations to pick up the city’s garbage. Shimmering waste trucks now line the streets, but these multinational corporations are only contractually obligated to recycle 20 percent of what they collect, leaving the rest to rot in giant landfills. As foreign workers came in with waste trucks and begin carting garbage to nearby landfills, the Zaballeen watched their way of life disappearing.

The Filmmaker

  1. Mai IskanderDirector