In the western world, we tend to take garbage collection for granted, but many communities throughout the world have found innovative ways of reducing and recycling refuse.
Take Egypt, for instance, a country that uses pigs to reduce excess waste from city to city.
But there's more to this story than meets the eye as Egypt struggles with political and ethnic tensions.
Since 2011, mountains of garbage have accumulated due to ongoing protests and lacking public services. Pigs have traditionally been used to sift through all manners of garbage, consuming organic matter in the process. This organic material consists of vegetable and fruit matter, and although eating garbage is not one hundred percent healthy for pigs, the organic material does sustain them with a relatively healthy diet. The remaining garbage is then hauled away or recycled by members of Egypt's Coptic Christian community, a minority that comprises ten percent the population. This group within the Coptic community are called the Zabbaleen (Garbage People). The Zabbaleen rely on pigs to break down garbage, and these pigs are their economic livelihood. These communities have faced increased marginalization in a predominantly Muslim country, especially throughout the Mubarak and Morsi regimes.
Garbage collection gives the impression that pigs and Coptic Christians are on the same level, and many hold this view within prejudiced circles of the Egyptian elite. But those within the community don't see it that way.
For many in the community, garbage collection is a family business. Children wake up with their parents to collect, haul and recycle garbage, and this is a profession that is passed down from generation to generation.
And while some Coptic Christians have no other choice other than garbage processing and collection, this industry does provide a main source of income for many people, and it has made farmers wealthy. A farmer can get $1,400 from one pig alone. It may seem like an unconventional method of garbage collection to western eyes, but Egyptians swear by this method through and through. Pigs reduce garbage matter by 80 percent, with the remaining percentage either hauled away or recycled. Even the pig waste is dried and converted into a viable heating source. It seems like a successful business model, but this small world of garbage collection has suffered as of late.
Trouble in Pig Paradise
Things took a turn for the worst in 2009 during the swine flu scare. The Mubarak regime confiscated and slaughtered over 300,000 pigs because of the fear. Farmers were only paid a demeaning 10 cents per pig, and many of these pigs were killed in inhumane ways such as being buried alive and having acid poured over them. The Muslim Brotherhood was not in power at the time, but many from the Coptic community believed MB elements within the government sought to repress Christians by taking away their livelihood.
And since many Christians made their living from pig slaughterhouses and farms, all of which were shut down, this has had drastic consequences on the community. According to critics, the swine flu scare was used as a pretext to kill pigs and further demean Christians. In the Islamic world, the pig is considered unclean, because it perceived that swine will eat anything. And since pigs have become the living embodiment of all things trash in Egypt, this imbedded perception will not change any time soon. Many critics also believe that Muslim Brotherhood elements wanted to completely eliminate swine from Egypt altogether.
While there is no way to prove this, the overreaction regarding swine flu around the world cannot be denied. And since pig farms in Egypt were not exactly known for sanitation, this gave the government the excuse needed to cull many hogs. But with the pig purging also came piles of rotting garbage as evidenced in the photo below.
With these mounds of trash also came hordes of rats that plagued Egypt, forcing the government to look for alternatives.
Return of the Garbage Eaters
When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Zabbaleen were banned from engaging in their craft, but with Morsi out of power, the new government is relying on this community again to deal with the nation's sanitation problem.
Pigs have returned throughout Egyptian cities, and more are coming to appreciate these pigs. There are issues with pigs eating garbage, whether organic or not, since they can contract disease from any wasted material, but these hogs do have a prominent role within Egyptian society. The future of the Zabbaleen and their hogs are not certain, but they do provide a band-aid solution as the nation contends with maintaining social stability and a cohesive government.