The following post is written by one of my lovely and talented writers at Re-Vision Labs, Martina Welke. Look for more of these posts in the coming months, as we aggressively build our Environment Lab to help environmental organizations to do their work better, faster, and more effectively.
Waste Not, Want Not
This week, Director Mai Iskander’s film Garbage Dreams will premier on PBS as part of the station’s Independent Lens series. The documentary features three adolescent young men “raised in the trash trade” in Cairo. Adham, Osama, and Nabil are part of the Zaballen community, which is one of the oldest urban recycling cultures in the world.
The Zaballeen people saw economic opportunity in trash collection over a century ago, and have built their livelihood around the business. Since there is not much money in garbage pickup, the Zaballeen make the majority of their revenue from recycling. About 80% of the trash they collect is recycled by hand and then sold as raw materials.
The film chronicles the Zaballeen struggle to maintain their recycling program after the city of Cairo hires foreign corporations to take over garbage disposal in the city. Although the corporate program recycles only a small fraction compared the to Zaballeen, the city government prefers the foreign companies because they are perceived as modern.
In an effort to combat the foreign competition, the Zaballeen community launches a grassroots campaign to organize the enterprise, modernize their services, and educate the surrounding community. The community sponsors a Recycling School that teaches reading , writing and computer skills as well as safe recycling practices. Iskander includes a few community meetings and some footage of door-to-door canvassing efforts, but I found myself wanting to see more scenes focused on Zaballeen community organizing than the one-hour time frame would allow.
One of the most interesting segments of Garbage Dreams is when two of the young boys, Adham and Nabil, are selected to travel to the United Kingdom in order to study modern waste management. The boys are appalled at how much garbage is wasted at the high-tech plant they visit. Adham tellingly remarks, “Here there’s technology but no precision.”
In a very brief segment near the film’s conclusion, Iskander included updates two years after the launch of the Zaballeen campaign. Unfortunately, the foreign corporations seem to be winning the battle. Yet there are still signs of hope, as one community member notes that people around the globe are finally starting to care about trash and understand its environmental, political and economic importance.
Garbage Dreams is the kind of documentary that left me wanting to see more, learn more, and do more. Luckily, there is a fantastic interactive website that allows viewers to do just that. The site is packed with additional information, discussion guides, and lesson plans to help people learn from the film. There’s even a game that simulates the Zaballeen business process and challenges players to match the 80% recycling rate they have achieved (no easy feat, even for a die hard recycler like myself—I only reached a 32% on my first attempt.)
Garbage Dreams premieres tomorrow, April 27th on PBS. Check local listings here.