Image: Men collect plastic bags for recycling
Gregory Bull  /  AP
Two men collect plastic bags to turn into a recycling center in downtown Mexico City on Sept. 3. Mexico City is trying to turn one of the planet's biggest and messiest waste management systems into the greenest in Latin America.
updated 9/14/2009 10:44:51 AM ET 2009-09-14T14:44:51

Teenagers use them to sneak beer into concerts. Morning commuters sip juice from them. Vendors save on containers by slopping everything from salads to bulk shampoo into them.

This smog-choked metropolis of 20 million has a red hot love affair with the plastic bag, and it's about to take on a shade of green. The government is banning stores from packing up goods in free, non-biodegradable bags as its latest environmental endeavor after adding bike lanes, low-emissions buses and an ambitious recycling program.

Major retailers already are responding, though the law passed in March and signed in August gives them a year to comply.

Wal-Mart is trying to recycle plastics and sell cloth totes at checkout counters. Supermarket chains Soriana and Comercial Mexicana have switched to oxo-biodegradable plastic bags, which they say take less than two years to break down. Most of the plastic bags now blamed for filling dumps, clogging waterways and killing marine life take close to a century to break down, sponsors of the ban say.

"It's a good idea to stop damaging the environment," said supermarket shopper Maggie Valadez, 46, as she stuffed a ripe cantaloupe into just the kind of filmy bag that will no longer be allowed under the ban.

Mexico City joins San Francisco, New Delhi and a growing number of cities around the world restricting use of plastic bags, which the U.N. says are among the most pervasive types of ocean litter. Just producing the petroleum-based bags pumps tons of carbon emissions into the air.

The results of such bans have been mixed. Roughly two years later, a ban affecting large supermarket chains and pharmacies in San Francisco has cut plastic bag distribution by more than 50 percent, according to the city's environment department. But a Seattle ban was challenged by the plastics industry in court and overturned last month in an industry-financed referendum.

Mexico City has until mid-October to publish regulations that set the definition of a biodegradable bag, as well as penalties for violating the ban — defined in the law as up to 1 million pesos and 36 hours in jail. Some officials say the city may elect to allow a bag fee, meaning shoppers could still get the old plastic bags if they pay for them.

The plastic-bag law only affects about 8 million residents of the city proper. But the environment minister of the surrounding state of Mexico, which holds much of the metro area, has proposed a similar law. A federal ban was also introduced in Mexico's Congress in February but hasn't moved beyond committee.

Recycling goal is ambitious
The new law complements the city's efforts to turn one of the planet's biggest and messiest waste-management systems into the greenest in Latin America, if not the developing world. Mexico City only recycles about 6 percent of the 12,500 tons of trash it generates daily — but aims to compost or burn for energy 85 percent of it by 2013.

It's difficult to say how much of that trash is plastic bags.

Mexico's National Association of Supermarkets and Department Stores is concerned that the law is not clear on other kinds of plastic packaging, saying it would require repackaging of almost every grocery item at huge expense.

But Xiuh Tenorio, a former legislator who sponsored the ban, says it only affects bagging on site in stores, restaurants or dry cleaners, for example.

The real challenge to the city's new attack on plastic bags is the unregulated informal economy of street vendors, who feed the bag addiction. The Mexico City Chamber of Commerce estimates there are 35,000 vendors in the downtown area alone — many of whom spend their days scooping everything from chili-covered grasshoppers, a Mexican delicacy, to ribbon headbands into plastic bags.

In the city center, there's an entire block of stores selling globs of beauty products in plastic bags. Huge vats bubble over with knockoff Head and Shoulders and white-foam mountains of fake Dove moisturizer. Those who can't afford the real thing pay 13 pesos to have half a kilogram of Nivea-like cream scooped out of a three-foot barrel with a spatula and slopped into a plastic bag.

"It's so much cheaper this way," said Gabino Robledo, who bought 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of hair gel for 24 pesos to tame his long curls.

But supporters of the ban point out that until the 1990s, reusable plastic mesh tote bags were the standard when it came to lugging products from the market. Supporters hope the ban will spark a comeback of the old-fashioned, bright-colored bags, now being sold as chic boutique items.

"They were once associated with maids," Tenorio said. "Now the bags are in style."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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