“We are the nothing class,” explained Adham, a very modern-looking, dynamic protagonist, early in the film as Egypt’s Zaballeen, which means “garbage people” in Arabic, are introduced.

In Garbage Dreams, trash is everywhere in their community because everyone works in the garbage and recycling trade, whether its on collecting missions in Cairo, as demonstrated by Nabil, opening a cans recycling business such as Adham dreams of, or in plastics recycling for distribution to Western countries like Osama’s father.

For generations, the Zaballeen have collected the upper classes’ garbage and recycle nearly 80%. What the film does not tell you is that a large component is recycling food waste with pigs, which aids in Zaballeen farming. It’s as close to a closed-loop system that any city the size of Cairo could boast.

The film, and discussion about both increasing recycling rates in general and Salem’s program, was shown last week at the Peabody Essex Museum Phillips Library at an event sponsored by MassRecycles and SalemRecycles. Salem has raised its recycling rate from 16% to 22%. In addition to weekly pick-up, SalemRecycles also offers e-waste collection at several locations and hosts free public events that encourage recycling, such as book swaps that also offer the host church revenue from sale of the leftover books to a recycling company that buys such stock.

The point of the film is clear: much higher recycling rates on a community scale can, of course, be achieved. We can reuse and recycle things much better than we do.

Poignantly, filmmaker Mai Iskander captures this message through ordinary teenage post-field trip conversation. On a bus back to their village from a visit to a new landfill, one asked, “If you were in charge of a landfill, what would you do?” Adham responded, “I would dig it all up and reuse it because it is a gift from G-d.

Recycling Experts

The Zaballeens’ recycling expertise is unsurpassed. Nabil and Adham, who attend their community’s recycling school, are invited to Wales to see and experience modern recycling collection and processing. While amazed at the equipment and the fact that the community separates their trash, they are quick to point out obvious waste in the system. Adham picks up a cast aside plastic shard, “This is recyclable.” They have the technology, but lack “precision,” Adham concludes.

The antagonist, or obstacle, in the film is silent but is nevertheless a force over the main characters’ lives. Together, three international corporations that the city of Cairo signed collection contracts with threaten the young Zaballeens’ future.

In a world without opportunity, which the viewer is immersed in, humbled by, and amazed at (despite an abysmal lack of resources, the teenagers all speak English) throughout the 80-minute film, trash has now been taken from this impoverished community. The Italian and Spanish-owned waste management businesses have been the recipients of Cairo’s trash since 2003. More recent scavenger laws decrease what the Zaballeen can bring home and recycle.

Many must give up their family business and some, like Osama, take collection jobs with the trash companies to support their impoverished families. Others, like Nabil, hope and work hard and long, waiting more than three years to establish a tiny apartment and start a family. Adham loses some heart, dreaming of traveling to places where his dreams can become reality.

More Trash in the Desert

In addition to the social challenges raised in the film, the collection companies also threaten Cairo’s footprint, changing and diminishing a once world-famous recycling success story.

They are only required to recycle 20%, the rest is brought to new landfills that will quickly fill holes dug in the Egyptian desert.

While Cairo’s fall from grace in the area of recycling is currently seen through its devastating effects on the Zaballeen, soon their garbage dumps will be seen from space, just like Fishkill, New York’s. In a befuddled attempt to modernize, the city of Cairo not only further impoverishes a group of citizens, but spends money creating more environmental waste.

More information and a trailer are available on the Garbage Dreams Web site. The film’s television premier will be on PBS in April 2010. See SalemRecyles for program information.