An estimated 20 million people around the world earn a living as waste pickers, like these men in Cairo. Cairo’s informal waste collectors (zabbaleen) are a distinctive part of the city’s street culture and currently collect 50-60% of its waste. A group of multinationals, backed by Egypt’s government, have created a plastic recovery scheme which rewards collectors through digital credits. This scheme demonstrates how a responsible recycling model can enable social inclusivity and be replicated elsewhere. For more than 70 years, Cairo’s zabbaleen (Arabic for waste collectors) have been gathering and recycling the city’s rubbish with an efficiency that would be the envy of most professional waste management companies. Yet their pivotal role in the city’s circular economy has gone largely unrecognized. Now that is starting to change. A new scheme backed by some key multinational corporations and supported by the Egyptian government is putting the zabbaleen centre-stage and empowering their informal businesses, with the help of simple digital technology. The initial target is plastic waste, an environmental scourge that now accounts for 12% of all municipal solid waste worldwide. Understanding Egypt’s plastic problem The zabbaleen have a unique heritage. Arriving in Cairo in the 1940s, their small carts […]

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