Investigating the Consumer Dreams of the Garbage People

Recently I watched Garbage Dreams, a new documentary that follows several teen boys of the Zaballeen—a group of Egyptian Christians living in Cairo that make their living sorting garbage and selling the salvageable scrap (Zaballeen literally means “Garbage People” in Arabic).

As the film demonstrates, this caste of people provide an incredibly valuable service to Cairo, recycling about 80% of trash—more than three times that of Wales, which these teens visit to “learn” from the Welsh sanitation services. While observing Welsh operations and examining all the garbage that isn’t recycled, they fairly note, “It’s a shame that we don’t live here—it’s a loss for this country.” I agree, especially since they do much of the same work with minimal technology (and thus less fossil fuel), with no support from the government (in form of trash fees), and without the aid of “source separation” where households separate recyclables from organic waste.

The movie reveals the lead conflict early on, when a multinational sanitation company arrives in Cairo to start dealing with the waste, even though the city has to pay these contractors and their recycling rates are clearly lower. A few of the young protagonists visit a landfill that is run by the company and are horrified by all the salvageable garbage being buried. The viewer can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the Cairo government had actually consulted with the Zaballeen and offered to give a small percentage of the fees they’re paying the sanitation company in the form of technology support. The Zaballeen’s efficiency would have probably shot up even higher, all at a fraction of the cost.

But while this conflict is frustrating to watch, especially since (spoiler alert) it doesn’t go very well in the end, what amazed me was how much these income-poor Zaballeen are consumers. Not only did they have all the trappings of consumers—electronic gadgets, hair gel and cosmetics, TVs, basketball shoes, and stereos, even while living in slums—but they acted as consumers too. Just one example: one of the protagonists, Nabil, describes at one point how his father was jailed for building him an illegal apartment on the roof of their building. He explains how, one day, after his father was jailed, Nabil thought about him while playing Play Station, and wanted to cry. But instead, he put in a new hit song that he bought, and felt better. That makes me want to cry. Consuming is such a good way to distract ourselves from painful moments, discomfort, boredom, etc., that we often have difficulty even dealing with these moments any longer, and retreat more and more into consuming.

But why I really was saddened by the film was that the filmmakers never drew attention to the realities of the consumer culture—the same one that the Zaballeen have joined and the same that much of the world’s people have too. Consumerism stimulates high consumption lifestyles, which not only generates massive mounds of trash but creates toxic waste, climate changing gases, encourages the exploitation of the poorest in the quest to get ever cheaper stuff, and leads to societal problems like the obesity epidemic. While a fascinating look at trash and one community’s struggle to maintain its livelihood, Garbage Dreams really missed the mark by not drawing attention to the root of this problem: a culture that makes it feel natural to consume (and waste) ever more stuff.

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