Monday, March 30, 2009
garbage dreams (imdb) is a documentary about the zaballeen, the traditional garbage collectors of cairo. cairo historically had no centralized garbage collection system, and that's for a city with almost twice the population of new york. into that vacuum stepped the zaballeen, some 60,000 members of the cairene lower class, who for a small fee, would go door-to-door, collect people's garbage, sort it, and mostly recycle it. the zaballeen are remarkably efficient recyclers. they manage to recycle 80% of the trash the collect (by contrast european waste management systems brag when their recycling rate reaches 28%).
the film follows the lives of three young zaballeen, just as their way of life is dying out. the city of cairo, anxious to shed its third world image, hires foreign waste management companies to deal with the city's garbage. the zaballen community scrambles to deal with the threat. with the help of an NGO, two of our three protagonists fly to wales, to observe modern garbage collection and to bring those ideas back to the zaballeen community. at first, it looks like the gambit might succeed. pushing their environmentalist credentials, the zaballeen manage to get the residents on their route to sort their garbage for the first time.
but it doesn't work. the city's garbage collectors often beat the zaballeen to the pick up. after residents observe the city's collectors dump their sorted garbage bags together, the community stops separating and the recycling campaign falls apart. soon individuals from the community start getting jobs with the garbage company. there aren't enough jobs for all of them, of course, so the community's economy collapses. modern garbage trucks take over the old zaballeen route, but the city is left with an even more impoverished community and an end to it's super-efficient recycling.
the film is very effective at championing the zaballeen cause. when it first described the zaballeen at work, the back breaking labor and squalor that comes with that lifestyle, i was hoping that the city would replace the zaballeen with a western garbage collection system. by the end of the film, my sympathies had completely flipped. i was rooting for the zaballeen in their futile efforts to fight off the foreign garbage trucks. what seems like sensible development policies ends up hurting the people it was meant to save, plus we get a shittier environment.
UPDATE: i had no idea when i saw the film (and i missed it when it was on the screen), but my friend dagger aleph has a translator credit on this film.