The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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January 22, 2012

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Mexico – 22 Jan 2012 –

MEXICO CITY – As one of the planet’s greatest crushes of humanity, the sprawling and chaotic Mexican capital hemorrhages garbage.

Mexico City’s 9 million people discard 12,000 tons of refuse daily, with the 13 millon inhabitants of its suburbs shedding still far more. Handling the waste long since has overwhelmed local and federal officials, as it has in most parts of the developing world.

Now, under federal orders, the city government has closed the 927-acre sanitary landfill where most of the capital’s refuse – as much as 76 million tons of it – has been buried during the past 26 years.

Good idea, but …

Officials and environmentalists hail the shutdown as a crucial step in both curbing the metropolis’ suffocating greenhouse gases and in directing Mexico and other developing countries toward better waste management.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, whose government had sought to delay or scuttle the closing, has called it “one of the most important environmental actions for the entire country.”

“If it can be done here,” Ebrard said, “it can be replicated elsewhere.”

But the landfill, called the Bordo Poniente, was closed Dec. 19 without definite plans as to where to reroute the city’s offal. Nearby cities are unwilling or unable to take much of it.

Open-air dumps

So garbage is piling up on open ground at the Bordo, trash collection is slowing in neighborhoods and people are dumping refuse on vacant lots, street corners and roadside ditches.

“Why didn’t they take the appropriate measures to prepare for it?” asked Gustavo Alanis, president of Cemda, a leading Mexican environmental group.

“If we don’t solve this, we are going to see trash dumped everywhere. We are going to see more open-air dumps without any kind of supervision.”

With no immediate alternatives, putrid dunes of rubbish – some 30,000 tons of it – stand 15 feet high outside the Bordo Poniente’s recycling plant. Scores of tractor trailer trucks, each carrying 20 tons or more of refuse, roll into the grounds daily to disgorge still more.

Earth movers and steam shovels scramble to shift the trash into manageable mounds. Freelance workers sift through the rubble in search of anything of value.

“This is a huge problem,” said Pablo Tellez, the 74-year old boss of the Bordo’s unionized trash pickers.

“With each day that passes there is more and more garbage. We are overcome.”

Stinky recycling

Inside the cavernous recycling plant, workers flank three conveyer belts fed by bulldozers, picking through the constant stream of garbage, several feet deep, flowing past.

Most gloveless, their unmasked faces exposed to the noxious fumes, the men and women deftly pull out plastic and glass bottles, metal and other resellable castoffs.

The plant operates three shifts, 24 hours a day, every day. Still, a manager calculates scarcely 10 percent of the garbage is weened for resale.

“We should have better technology, better equipment,” said Gabriel Reyes, the plant’s daytime shift supervisor.

“It has been a lack of culture, of consciousness.”

Still, some environmentalists praise Mexico City’s handling of waste as one of the more advanced in the developing world.

Many landfills and dumps in Latin America, Asia and Africa remain overburdened: filled to overcapacity then simply abandoned.

Loaded with toxins and decomposing organic material, such dumps can leach poisons into groundwater and produce large amounts of methane gas, which scientists say has more than 20 times the atmosphere-warming impact as carbon dioxide.

Reducing emissions

Closing the Bordo Poniente, at a cost of as much as $180 million, will reduce Mexico City’s pollutant emissions by more than a quarter, said Karen Luken, waste management director of the Clinton Foundation, which worked with Mexico City officials in planning the shutdown.

“We hope they help guide others,” said Luken, referring to the example the Bordo’s closing might set for poor cities elsewhere struggling with landfill issues. “Our problem with getting them properly closed is it’s really expensive.”

The cost of closing the Bordo should be offset in part by capturing and reselling the methane for energy generation.

The Clinton Foundation estimates that the methane-fueled energy from the landfill could supply energy for 35,000 homes before depleting after three or four years.

That, in addition to the environmental benefits, makes the Mexican capital’s current trash disposal crisis worthwhile, Luken argues.

“It’s obviously frustrating,” Luken said of the crisis.

“But to close a landfill the magnitude of Bordo without having three to four months of transition would be highly unusual.” Read the original