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For Egypt's Christians, pig cull has lasting effects

Reacting to swine flu by slaughtering pigs, Cairo upends a key part of its service economy – Christian trash collectors.

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"For us, it has been a disaster. It is a slow death," he says.

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Since then, he has focused on the only other way he knows to turn trash into money: recycling.

While Khalil pulls in about $90 a month from trading garbage, the actual collection of trash pays nothing – literally. Men like Khalil and Qadees receive no money for carting away the city's trash. Their income comes from what they do with the trash.

"There are a lot of things you can make out of garbage," says Khalil, brandishing a white plastic bucket in one hand and the sole of an old shoe in the other.

He sells them to a local recycling facility, where, he says, "they'll wash them, chop them up, and melt them down to use them in plastic hangers or tubes."

Theirs is a complicated and highly efficient system of waste disposal and reuse. Garbage is divided into two piles: recyclable materials like plastic that account for 40 percent of the trash, and organic waste like spoiled food that makes up the rest, which for generations was fed to the least picky farm animal around – pigs.

Without pigs, old system collapses

Garbage is the lifeblood of zebaleen communities like Zarayeb, which is home to about 35,000 people, most descended from migrants who came from Egypt's poor, rural south in the 1950s. But without their pigs, the old system is "collapsing," says Ezzat Naem Guindy, director of the Spirit of Youth Association, a community development group.

The government has instructed the trash collectors to cart what garbage can't be recycled to state-run landfills. But filling up a tank of gas and driving there can cost up to $9, and that doesn't include fees to use trash bins and bribes to officials who, Qadees says, "take money from you to even get in the place."

Unable to afford the fees and bribes, and without the pigs, many zebaleen "throw what they don't need on the side of the road or in empty lots, and take the garbage they can use," says Rami Iskander, the CEO of Heliocare, a private trash collection firm that employs some zebaleen.

If this trend continues, Mr. Iskander fears that Egypt could be facing a whole new public health crisis within months.

Before losing his pigs in May, Khalil expressed the same worry: "People will see, once the pigs are gone, the streets of Cairo are going to be filled with trash. When we take the garbage, they tell us, 'OK, you can keep it.' But without the pigs, why would we ever want this stuff?"

All told, the average zebaleen extended family that operates like a small business – living together in apartment blocks, working the same trash route, pooling work and investments in livestock, sorting trash, and renting trucks – could face added fees, bribes, and labor costs of up to $1,800, estimates Mr. Guindy. And, he says, lost revenue from pigs for the average family could average $3,600.

To make matters worse, many zebaleen now work less often. Fearing swine flu, some clients have asked them to pick up the trash less often. With the financial incentive for collecting 60 percent of the trash now gone, many are happy to comply.

But trash being collected less frequently means less trash to comb for recyclables for zebaleen like Qadees and Khalil, who now rely solely on plastic recycling to get by.

"Before, this whole area used to be piled as high as the second-floor windows with plastic and cardboard," says Qadees, looking down from the roof of his family's squat, four-story apartment building into the tight alleys zigzagging below, "but now it's empty."