Environmental Challenges for Mexico - Part 1

by Regina Burdett

If I'm lucky I'll find something to sell

If I'm lucky I'll find something to sell

Following on from my first article to introduce the work being done by Grupedsac, the Mexican, non-governmental organization that promotes education and sustainable development, here the focus is on solid waste and how to produce less of it.

“For roughly 20 years, I was one of those people who criticized citizens and industry leaders for what they WERE doing, and the government for what they WEREN'T doing; actions that were preventing Mexico from becoming an ecology-conscious nation.” Carlos Padilla Massieu.

The Man, His Choice

The controversial but visionary man quoted above is an industrial engineer by profession and former CEO of a successful steel corporation, who decided that waiting for change was no longer an option.

Today, 30 years on from that inspired moment, he is a highly respected environmental expert and advocate, not afraid to speak his mind, and who continues striving to make his country a more sustainable one.

When Padilla accepted my request for an interview, he most thoughtfully sent me some reading homework and I then decided to make my first question one that would normally go at the end.

RB: It is clear that the gains have been small and the obstacles, which are major ones, haven’t yet been overcome and are impeding progress. Do you feel frustrated?

CPM: I can best answer that by saying that when the time comes for me to look back at the achievements, I’ll never feel ashamed because I didn't do anything. I didn’t just sit here with my arms crossed while we destroyed Mother Earth. I tried to help build a better future.

Proving The Theory

Once committed, that same year, Padilla began investigating at home as well as the USA, Germany and Japan, how BASURA was being managed. He concluded that the solutions being applied were not the correct ones and that when desperate measures are taken, such as tossing it into the ocean, the problem only worsens. In fact, it was so dire, he saw only one solution…stop producing it!

But before publicizing his theory, he needed to prove its feasibility. So, Padilla spoke to his wife and three children about conducting an experiment to see if, in fact, they could stop discarding everything they didn’t want, throwing it all into one bin and having it hauled away. He told them that if it worked, they would spread the word and get others to do the same. That was back in 1983. And, yes, it did indeed work! Well, sort of!

RB: Your neighbors must have noticed what your family was doing. Did you talk to them about your project?

CPM: Yes, we did. They started seeing how beneficial it was to separate the waste, a much cleaner, healthier way of handling it, and gradually more and more families in our community started doing the same. Only 10% of all solid waste we generate has to be taken to a special site for disposal. Now, my children and grandchildren are setting an example where they live. And, let’s not forget, doing this also gives greater dignity to those who earn a living from picking up what we no longer want.

What Is Waste?

Let’s look again at the title of this article. What is garbage? What is trash? What is reusable or recyclable? What really is waste?

In the USA, garbage is wet and organic, mostly what comes out of a kitchen or bathroom, like food waste and paper products. Trash is dry and inorganic, and is basically everything else such as glass, plastic, junk in general, as well as yard waste such as grass clippings and leaves.

Almost everything we throw away (glass, metal, rubber, fabric, and so on) can be recycled or reused in some way, but often isn’t. Other items, like batteries, medications and sanitary waste, must be disposed of in a strictly controlled manner.

Organic materials, including food waste, can be used to make compost on a small scale at a home, or on an industrial scale in the case of restaurants, hotels and hospitals. It is the only natural earth restorer that exists and can replace the chemical fertilizers that are degrading and contaminating our soils.

RB: How is solid waste classified in Mexico and what’s your definition of the English terms trash and garbage?

CPM: To me, BASURA is the result of two or more types of waste that, when mixed together, cause contamination, toxicity through decomposition, illness, disease, loss of natural resources as well as stench and disgust. When these effects do not occur, then it’s not true waste.

After The Waste Is Picked Up

In Mexico, most of the items that are separated for reuse or recycling are sold by citizens directly to those who do the recycling. The rest usually ends up as landfill, which is routinely done in many countries.

However, it is a very unhealthy way of dealing with massive quantities of solid waste because it can release dangerous gases and chemicals into the air we breathe and the water we drink. This also contributes to global warming since one of these gases is methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And Padilla has stressed that while citizens continue to produce waste, even more land will be rendered unproductive as a result of the growing number of landfills.

Waste Affects Environment and Quality Of Life

All industries, no matter where they are located or what their activities are, cause some kind of pollution, either directly or indirectly. And when a product, together with its container and packaging is not reutilized, it becomes a non-renewable resource that is gone forever. Mexico alone loses 500,000 tons of natural resources every single day, which represents a minuscule 1% of what is lost worldwide.

Because Mexico produces an uncontrolled amount of solid waste that is handled incorrectly, there are dumping sites everywhere in plain view, on streets, empty lots, public parks, hillsides, rivers, lakes and oceans.

The health hazards are enormous and costly and this blatant waste and plundering of natural resources ultimately affects a nation’s economy.

We Simply Don’t Care

In Mexico, and elsewhere, there is general apathy when it comes to disposing of unwanted solid waste, but just why do we continue to produce it in ever increasing amounts?

Because of ignorance. And even if a person has received a good education, they cannot really be considered educated when what they are doing is harming themselves, society and nature.

Because we have bad habits. We put out the garbage and trash in a bin in front of our house, the truck comes by and picks it up. End of story!

Because of laziness. It is easier and quicker to throw everything together in one waste bin. But it requires a much greater effort for someone else to separate it.

Because we are irresponsible. We know perfectly well the problems this causes yet we simply don’t care.

On a parallel track, courses are given, workshops held, university degrees offered. Padilla has produced books, videos and display materials, all provided to various government entities, which have either never been utilized or else not utilized effectively.

Thirty years ago, there was little proof or practical solutions regarding the deterioration of the environment. Currently, however, the evidence is overwhelming. So what is lacking is not insufficient information, rather the desire to change.

RB: In the USA, residents and businesses are charged monthly for the garbage/trash/recycle pickup service their local township provides. In Mexico, this service is free. In your opinion, should it be free?

CPM: Certainly not. This service is costly and local governments aren’t given a budget that can tackle the problem properly. In fact, some municipalities have laws in place which prevent them from charging. Citizens produce the waste in the first place and all the authorities do is foment this lack of civic responsibility.

Where Does It Go? Where Should It Go?

So, just how should Mexicans become more responsible and throw away less? Is this easier said than done? Not according to Padilla and others who put forward the following recommendations.

A) The only items to be picked up by local authorities from a home or business are to be separated into two categories: organic waste and sanitary waste (sanitary towels, diapers, cotton swabs with blood or some infectious or dangerous matter, expired medicines…).

The organic waste will be taken to a compost heap and the sanitary waste to specially designated landfill areas that comply with specific health norms.

B) Each citizen will be charged according to the amount of waste collected.

C) All other items will be the responsibility of each citizen to take to collection centers to be reused, recycled or disposed of safely.

RB: Have the above proposed measures been adopted by any local authorities in Mexico?

CPM: No, they haven’t. This is utterly irresponsible. But, in spite of that, there are many instances where citizens are doing the right thing and have set up and are using collection centers for items that can be recycled.

Defining a Developed Nation

Businesses entice us to consume more and more “things” with their marketing campaigns. We end up with more “stuff” than we need and we become lazy and wasteful, the typical behavior pattern of a throw away society. And the chain continues as we consume our own wealth and natural resources instead of producing and renewing.

Maybe now is the time to reconsider the definition of an industrialized/developed nation in today’s world. Is it a wealthy one with power, the best technology, that possesses the most? Or, one that has learned to live with the indispensable, in harmony with nature and free of influences that take away our independence to choose what’s best for us?

What do you, the reader, think?

On To Part 2

With a pause to reflect, we conclude part 1. Please stay with us and go to part 2 for some more harsh criticism, the Rio Accord, and a family business.

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