The Problem with Trash in Mexico

EDITOR NOTE: Interesting that the number one problem is kitchen waste, then followed by single use plastic. If Mexico is second only to New York City in trash production, a little education could go a long way in teaching methods of compost and recycling, but it's not the easiest routine for families to adopt nor is there much incentive.

Every day, 13 thousand tonnes of garbage is dumped in Mexico City. This means that every citizen produces one kilo of solid waste every day, mainly organic waste and plastic. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of this garbage was produced by households and restaurants. But all citizens together are expected to generate 3 thousand tonnes more garbage than usual during their quarantine at home. This means that one of the biggest problems facing the country is that of the excessive generation of waste.

Mexico City, an enormous sprawling city, has struggled with waste for many years. It now ranks as the second biggest producer of waste among the world’s megacities (behind New York City), with waste management systems that cannot keep up with the problem. For most households in the capital, the biggest culprit is kitchen waste, including vegetable, fruit, tortilla and bread waste. In second place we find plastics, often in the form of single -use products, like plastic bottles and disposable plastic bags and packaging. The use of these products have increased during the pandemic as sanitation and convenience is prioritized. Lastly, even though e -waste only represents less than 1% of the total amount of waste produced in Mexico, this number is expanding rapidly.

Studies show that 53.1 million tonnes of waste is produced in all of Mexico annually. With 14.9 million tonnes that could be reused, the lack of infrastructure and regulations in the country have made it difficult to implement new initiatives. Current programmes mostly focus on the country’s city centres, which have better recycling infrastructure, while some outskirt areas still do not have a proper waste management system.

Despite the fact that the government is in charge of local waste management systems, most of the cleaning workers in Mexico City are volunteers, who are not afforded any work benefits. In Mexico City, some 10,000 waste-pickers, known as pepenadores, make a living from picking through the waste in the city. The city’s recycling plants also depend on informal labour to succeed, since this workforce is responsible for more than 60% of all material recovery.

It’s also worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk for people working in the informal waste sector, as household garbage is a likely source of infection.

In recent years, Mexico City has made renewed efforts to tackle its waste problem. But behaviours and mindsets still have a long way to go. And there is lots that design can do here. Take Mexico City’s needs into account by considering the following strategies:

There is a lack of reliable information on how to handle and separate waste. As a result, citizens and companies hardly separate their waste, reducing the possibilities to turn waste into a resource. This applies to all waste streams: organic / food waste, which can’t be composted, e-waste from which valuable materials cannot be extracted and plastics that cannot be recycled. How can we design educational programmes and campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of their waste? Can we imagine new ways to incentivise sorting and recycling efforts?

Waste management in Mexico City largely depends on the informal sector. There’s much to learn from the practices of informal waste pickers. How can we support this workforce by improving infrastructure and working conditions?Can we design facilities, services and programmes to enhance the separation and processing of different waste streams?

Most products are not designed with recycling in mind, which makes it hard or even impossible to extract materials that can be used to manufacture new products. This applies to electronic devices, plastics, textiles, furniture and many other consumer goods. At the same time, recycled materials are seen as inferior to new materials.

Therefore the challenge is twofold. How can we design products so that they are easily disassembled and recycled? And: how can we encourage companies to consider recycled materials as a valuable resource?

What applies to recycling also applies to reparation: modern products, and especially electronic devices are not made to be repaired. They are either too complex or too closed, which makes them hard to disassemble and replace parts. How can we design products that are simpler and easier to repair? Consider programmes that entice consumers and small businesses to take pride in repairing and maintaining products.

Most marketing strategies are focused on encouraging consumerism in a global economy, thereby increasing material extraction for products that will be quickly disposed of. Mexican consumers are very susceptible to these strategies. The government’s environmental and sustainability regulations are more a set of recommendations than mandatory measures, letting the market continue with business as usual. How can we change the mindset of Mexican consumers to favour more durable products? And how can we empower consumers to demand more sustainable products and regulations?

Before the pandemic, Mexico City generated more than 13 thousand tonnes of waste every day. This is partly due to the material culture of Mexicans, which drives overconsumption. The problem is intensified by a crippling lack of infrastructure — the city simply cannot manage the amounts of waste that is being produced. Based on conversations with experts and challenge partners, we have chosen to focus on the three main types of waste produced in the city: organic waste, plastic waste, and electronic waste. Of course, creatives already working on solutions that tackle other waste streams such as textiles, building materials and consumer goods are very welcome to submit proposals.

Mexico produces large amounts of food and 34% of it is wasted, which is the result of overproduction and inefficient distribution. How can we design products, services and programmes that lead to less food waste? Take into account every step of the chain from harvesting and production to the distribution, consumption and disposal of food.

Consider ways to shorten the chain by bringing locally produced food closer to consumers. Consider programs to change public perception of what is edible (in terms of aesthetics or expiration date, for instance).

According to official data, urban solid waste in Mexico City is composed of mostly organic matter from the kitchen and the garden. Most of it is disposed of along with other waste in landfills or incinerators. Meanwhile, more than one-third of all the food produced in Mexico is wasted as a result of overproduction and inefficient distribution.

To make matters worse, there is a lot of misinformation on how to handle and separate organic waste, which means very little of it is treated and composted. As a result, a lot of poorly sorted waste, underutilised waste, and most detrimentally, excessive waste remains.

Biomaterials made of organic waste can be a good alternative for single use products and packaging. Yet, there’s a lack of infrastructure to digest and process food and garden residues. Also there’s little recognition for the potential of biomaterials. How can design help accelerate the development of biomaterials to a commercially viable practice? Consider small-scale, community-run bio waste digestion systems, and types of biomaterials that can inspire consumers and entrepreneurs to become active in the collection and processing of organic waste.

Aiming to improve the organic waste situation in Mexico, Hagamos Composta focuses on collecting it for composting. People pay a subscription and they deliver buckets for houses or businesses to fill. Afterwards, the team will pick up the buckets and take them to a special terrain outside the city for its treatment and composting.

After 15 buckets of waste have been delivered, clients will receive a bucket of compost. The platform also shares advice and information on how to treat this kind of waste and even make compost at home.

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