Image: Mexico City garbage dump
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP file
Most of Mexico City still relies on garbage pickers — generations of scavengers, many born inside the landfills. But the city plans to waste less and recycle more, incorporating those scavengers into the business.
updated 1/25/2009 9:23:22 AM ET 2009-01-25T14:23:22

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's never seen a city revamp its recycling program on this scale in so little time. U.S. and European cities that now have recycling rates over 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-ton 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 tons 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."

700 trucks a day at one dump
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.

The Waste Commission plans to replace the ad-hoc system with new processing centers — about $14 million apiece — that by 2012 will recycle 20 percent of Mexico City's garbage, compost 20 percent more and burn another 45 percent for energy.

As of November, only one center, in the rural southern delegation of Tlahuac, had been approved. Menendez says he is negotiating with private investors to finance the other three, while the Tlahuac center will be paid for with public funds.

Tapping into methane
The government also will harvest methane gas from the Bordo for energy to power the subway and light homes.

One model for the processing centers is a brand-new, private recycling plant an hour north of the city, Menendez says.

Bio Sistemas Sustentables was created a year ago by a father-son team of Mexican businessmen and Colombian scientist Luis Orlando Castro, who perfected a way to compost waste in 25 days. Organic waste is hand-picked from a conveyer belt and then piled inside a "greenhouse," where workers inoculate it with foot-long syringes containing Castro's decomposition formula. The result is rich, organic soil that sells for $212 a ton.

Besides turning a profit, the Bio Sistemas plant has brought the Mexico City exurb of Nicolas Romero 187 new jobs and an 86 percent recycling rate — easily the highest in Mexico.

There are other signs of progress. Three of the city's 16 delegations have agreed to pick up recyclables and non-recyclables on different days, allowing the same trucks to be used without retrofitting. The Mexico City legislature in October approved fines of up to $3,800 and 36 hours in jail for anyone caught dumping trash on the streets. And starting this month, the city will issue "warnings" to people who don't separate their trash.

But one of the biggest challenges to a trash transformation is cultural.

The garbage workers union will have to accept the city's plan to collect separated waste.

"If they collaborate with the city, they could recycle and sell more," said Arnold Ricalde, the Waste Commission's social coordinator. "We want to include them. We don't want to leave people out of a job."

A public information campaign in the works will attempt to teach Mexico City residents the importance of recycling with subway signs and bus placards showing how refuse travels from kitchen to landfill.

"The first thing we have to do is change some habits," Ricalde said.

Role for garbage pickers?
Most of the metro area still relies on garbage pickers — generations of scavengers, many born inside the landfills.

About half of the Bordo refuse first gets processed at one of three privately run collection plants staffed by people like Maria de Los Angeles, a petite mother of three who lives in a small, cinderblock house with 13 others.

In the last 30 years, Mexico City closed its mega-dumps one by one and moved the dump dwellers into houses near the old landfill sites, putting them to work in collection plants.

De Los Angeles gets bused to the Bordo five days a week from her house just a few yards from the site of the old Santa Fe landfill, where she was born and which has now been reinvented as a chic new Mexico City neighborhood.

A big wall divides the glassed-in condos of Santa Fe from de Los Angeles' crumbling neighborhood, where stacks of glass bottles, plastic crates and piles of clothes line the streets.

The neighbors hawk scavenged goods from the Bordo at a busy Saturday market. In one way or another, everyone depends on the dump. No one knows what will happen when it closes.

On a recent afternoon, de Los Angeles leaned against her house and pointed to one across the way, where dozens of black plastic bags lay in a heap out front.

"That woman's job is buying stuff from the Bordo. How is she going to live?" she said. "That I just don't know."

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