Mexico City has been struggling with a serious garbage problem, especially since they closed one of the world’s largest landfills last year. As trash accumulates waist-deep and higher in the streets of some regions of the city with no garbage collectors in sight or limited garbage collection that doesn’t even begin to meet the need, officials have fought to keep their heads above water and come up with a comprehensive plan for managing the city’s waste, even as it keeps piling up. The densely-populated Central American city houses almost 9 million people, and together, they come up with a lot of trash every day.
So last year, the city introduced a program allowing residents to exchange recyclables for food vouchers, which they could redeem at a local market. The experimental program was designed to raise awareness about recycling and educate Mexicans about how to separate their garbage, creating an incentive for them to bring their recyclable waste to a facility for collection instead of throwing it out. It’s often difficult to get populations to adapt to recycling when it’s introduced to their communities, making programs like this critically important.
Unfortunately, this one has become a victim of its own success, because it’s not well-administered enough to function, and residents of Mexico City are starting to get angry. The initial concept is a great one: bring in your recyclables, have them assessed, pick up vouchers and then pick up fresh, healthy produce in exchange. However, so many people are flocking to the program that vendors are running out of produce, forcing people to arrive earlier and earlier if they want to stand a chance of getting any variety without having to pick through the dregs left behind by other eager customers.
Officials say the project is about educating people, not about creating a functional substitution for collecting garbage, and one would hope so: it would be highly inefficient to expect the city’s residents to haul their recycling and garbage to collection locations on a regular basis, given the city’s size and the fact that many people don’t have the time or the energy.
Despite that, the garbage problem remains, and it’s only getting bigger; the city is engaging in stopgap measures like trucking some garbage outside, but that’s not cost-effective and of course it only offsets the problem, rather than actually solving it. As the city dithers, the population is growing restless, with legitimate concerns about the growing mountains of garbage in some neighborhoods.
If Mexico City can’t come up with a garbage management program soon, it could be looking at a public health crisis thanks to the garbage in the streets and the growing pressure from angry citizens who are tired of wading through trash. Many of those citizens are ready to participate in recycling programs and other measures designed to reduce overall garbage production, but the city hasn’t been supporting them, nor has it implemented the systems it promised for revolutionizing garbage handling to make the city more environmentally-friendly.
For Mexico City, the booming success and now precarious status of the recycling-for-food program is a stark testimony to the city’s struggles adapting to a growing population and the pressures of modern life. It isn’t the only city facing similar issues, serving as an illustration of the key need for many cities to have difficult conversations about handling garbage in the long term, balancing the needs of citizens and the environment, and developing comprehensive plans for keeping the streets clean and safe.
The city may need to consider looking to other large cities and their models for success to determine how it could resolve the problem, and it also needs to be prepared to invest substantial funds in garbage control and management. Does it have those funds available, and is it ready for a long-term commitment?
Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.