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Mexico’s ‘Zero Waste’ Plan May Crash Into Informal Trash Economy

March 22, 2019, 9:00 AM

A government proposal to overhaul Mexico’s waste collection system could be a direct challenge to the underground economy that scours the trash for items of value.

The proposal—issued by the Environmental Ministry in mid-February—aims to turn Mexico’s mountains of garbage piled in open pit trash sites into a “zero waste” circular economy by establishing destinations where garbage could go to be reused, recycled, or turned into energy or compost.

Environmentalists are applauding the plan, but how to implement it is an open question: The proposal potentially disrupts powerful informal interests that have benefited from Mexico’s current system of garbage sorting.

“There is a lot of money and a lot of power around the recycling market,” said Juan Carlos Carrillo Fuentes, an environmental attorney with the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.

“Right now, the places where garbage is dumped are actually quite dangerous,” he said. “Let’s see if the new government [of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December] is able to come to some agreement with the informal power of these players in the garbage value chain.”

Open Pit Dumpsites

Mexico produces about 37.5 million tons of garbage a year, and Mexico City’s 27 million inhabitants produce about 4.7 million of those tons, according to Greenpeace.

The materials that are extracted and reused or recycled are picked out either after the garbage has been collected or at a final open pit dumpsite. For some products, such as common drink and food containers made with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, the system is surprisingly efficient with a 70 percent recycling rate, because of their monetary value, according to Greenpeace.

“I would go so far as to say that the true recycling rate in Mexico is significantly higher than that of the U.S., due to the fact that the ‘hand-picked’ commodity volume, which is difficult to track, can apparently allow a family to eke out a subsistence income,” said Rusty Getter, the president of Balcones Resources, an Austin, Texas-based environmental services company with close ties to the Mexican recycling sector.

Under the proposal, garbage will be separated into materials for recycling or re-use, for composting, or for waste-to-energy plants. The plan is still a high-level proposal and lacks the specifics of how and where the collection and separation will take place, as well as who will carry it out.

Garbage Census?

There are also calls for a “garbage census” before any such decisions are made. This will help the authorities to better understand the dynamics of Mexico’s current garbage generation.

“I think that trying to create public policy on waste management without knowing what is generated, how much of it, the composition, where it could go to, and what it could be transformed into for a circular economy future, it is just not reasonable,” said Ana Martinez, inclusive recycling program manager in the Mexican office of the Avina Foundation. The organization focuses on sustainable development in Latin America.

More information about the proposal could come when the administration’s National Development Plan is issued, which is expected in May. Currently, Mexico’s Senate is discussing legislation that will help Mexico reduce its production of solid waste.

Plastics producers and manufacturers have shown some resistance to the government proposals during the Senate’s consulting meetings this month, according to Miguel Rivas, a Greenpeace organizer who focuses on the challenges of plastic waste in the oceans.

“They don’t want to change their current way of manufacturing items,” Rivas said.

Would Plan Disrupt Collectors?

Interested groups also are discussing how the government’s new plan could be disruptive to the thousands of informal garbage collectors and sorters who live off the proceeds of the materials they then bring to a recycling business or center.

“Any significant change in the Mexican waste processing landscape will be a major challenge and affect untold throngs of people who currently depend on that stream for their livelihood,” Getter said.

Another challenge for the federal proposal is its reliance on states and local communities to carry out the initial collection and separation process.

“There are many towns in Mexico that do not have the money to run collection programs,” Rivas said. “The government’s separation and collection plan will be successful in big cities but will really struggle in small towns and cities that don’t have a collection system.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Pickrell in Mexico City at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Steven Gibb at