Al Jazeera English News today ran a feature on the Zabbaleen, the informal waste recyclers in Cairo. After the video clip, Professor David C Wilson was interviewed live by videolink between the Doha and London studios, to discuss waste management in developing countries more generally.  He highlighted the financial benefits that informal recyclers bring to a city, and argued for co-operative solutions – the city recognises the recyclers and works with them, to provide the recyclers with dignity, access to the waste and more hygienic working conditions,; and in turn benefits from more efficient recycling and thus less waste that the city needs to collect and dispose of.

The feature was part of a series on ‘Our Wasteful World’. The video clip highlights the very high recycling rates  achieved in Cairo, but also the lack of recognition of the Zabbaleen by the authorities and the unhygienic and degrading working conditions. David Wilson pointed out that cities like Paris and London had similar, relatively efficient, largely informal closed-loop recycling systems in the 19th century; these were displaced by formal, municipal collection systems, introduced to protect public health by removing wastes from the cities; and more recently also by modern systems focusing on the environmental standards of waste disposal. Western countries have thus had to rebuild recycling almost from scratch over the last 10-20 years, at considerable cost to the public sector, whereas the original informal sector recycling systems still operate in most developing country cities. These systems both provide livelihoods to large numbers of the urban poor, whose priority is where the next meal will come from; and also recycle a sizeable % of municipal solid wastes, thus saving city governments $millions in avoided collection and disposal costs – in effect, the poor subsidising the rich.