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Trash or treasure: Egypt's poorest decide

The residents of Garbage City, who earn a living picking scraps from the city's biggest dump, are also feeling the pinch of the global economic downturn.

A view of the garbage in Manshiyat Nasser. (Theodore May/GlobalPost)

CAIRO — You smell it before you see it. The stench of all the waste produced by Africa's most populous city, compressed into a few square blocks, sure can travel.

The roads are narrow — barely wide enough for one car to pass — and the buildings, up to 10 stories tall, loom over the streets, trapping the odors. When the midday sun beats down, the smell is unbearable.

The garbage in Manshiyat Nasser, or "Garbage City," as it is popularly known, flows out the doors of apartment buildings. In other places, it is stacked to the second or third floor.

But while most non-residents would look at Manshiyat Nasser and see only the most slum-like of Cairo's neighborhoods, those who live here see the potential for money-making.

Even here, however, the failing global economy is leaving its mark. Now, the men and women of Garbage City are working harder than ever to make this filthy, demeaning and often dangerous lifestyle pay.

All day and much of the night they crouch in mounds of trash, sorting through the refuse of the city's more than 18 million people. Their children, some no older than 4, look on, seemingly oblivious to the scores of flies on their faces.

“I work with plastics,” said Milad William, a 52-year-old garbage sorter who has lived here all his life. “The money is alright and I don't even notice the smell anymore.”

But William acknowledged that the economy here has gone sour in the last several months.

“The economy used to be better, but in the last few months, I'm making less,” he said.

William's street-side workplace shows a day's work half-finished. He sits between two piles, one of unsorted filth and the other of the plastic he's dug out — water bottles, children's toys, scraps.

He'll then sell what he finds to wholesalers who will whisk the garbage away for processing.

And this is where the trouble with the global economy lies. Though the garbage sorters don't report any decrease in the inflow of trash, they say they've had trouble selling what they pick up. And what they do manage to sell, they've been selling for less.

“It's harder to sell what I collect,” said a metal scrap seller who only gave the name Aissa. “And there isn't a lot of money here, anyways.”