Mexico City wants to turn one of the planet’s biggest and messiest waste management systems into the greenest in Latin America, if not the developing world.
A newly formed Waste Commission is working to build four state-of-the-art processing centers in the next four years to recycle, compost or burn for energy 85 percent of Mexico City’s trash — compared with about 6 percent recycled today. If it works, it would put this sprawling, polluted metropolis in a league with San Francisco, the Netherlands and other top recyclers, and first among developing cities, where the recycling rates mostly hover around 10 percent.
“The whole concept of recycling is very new in Latin America,” said Atiliano Savino, president of the International Solid Waste Association.
While many places are good at recycling one thing, such as aluminum, Savino said he had never seen a city revamp its recycling program on this scale in so little time. US and European cities that now have recycling rates of more than 50 percent began decades ago.
But Mexico City has no choice. The federal government proposed to close the city’s main landfill this month, saying the 50 million-tonne dump has become too full and leaches contamination. Scientists dispute that and the closing has been delayed by a city appeal in federal court for an extension. Yet waste management officials know that soon much of Latin America’s largest metro area will be forced into expensive, temporary alternatives for dumping trash.
It will take more than technology to recycle most of the 12,500 tonnes of trash the mega-city produces daily. As in much of the developing world, Mexico City residents aren’t accustomed to separating their garbage.
But Fernando Menendez, the dapper, silver-haired Waste Commission director, says naysayers need only look at the success of his other major environmental project. No one thought he could get Mexico City residents out of their cars to cut air pollution, either. But his Hoy No Circula campaign now idles at least 1.6 million cars a week.
“Nobody has ever done anything like this,” Menendez said of shutting down what he calls the world’s biggest landfill. “But it has to work. There’s no other option.”
The Bordo Poniente dump was built on a dry lake bed on the northeast edge of the city in part to handle the rubble from the devastating 1985 earthquake. It now takes about 700 truckloads of unsorted rubbish a day.
The city has required residents to sort trash since 2003, but without providing the infrastructure to handle it. Ninety percent of garbage trucks lack separate compartments for organic and inorganic waste. Thirteen transfer stations are supposed to process waste separately. But on a recent afternoon at a mid-sized center, three men were shoveling tree branches into a pit with plastic foam cups.
That’s where the enterprising informal economy takes over. Mexico City’s garbage workers union officially employs 17,000 and at least 8,000 more unofficially. Paid drivers and so-called volunteers make extra cash collecting “tips” from customers and selling aluminum and cardboard from their routes. Some union members rake in as much as three times their wage.
Meanwhile, just outside the Bordo Poniente, garbage pickers, including some children, sift through waste on fast-moving conveyer belts with their bare hands in a foul and dangerous open-air pit.