The dilemma of Mexico and its seven million tons of plastic waste

The dilemma of Mexico and its seven million tons of plastic waste

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Every minute, 500,000 million pouches are used worldwide and nearly another million containers of soft drinks are sold. Most of these materials end up in the oceans, turned into dumpsters with more than 140 million tons of plastic fragments floating to the sound of the currents. According to Mexico’s own government, around 44.6 million tons of municipal waste are produced, seven of which are plastics, which at best end up in the garbage or contaminate ecosystems.

“Promoting the reuse of these materials can improve the impact on ecosystems, but it hides a reality: an almost ridiculous percentage of the plastic we consume is recycled: less than 8% of the total,” says Ricardo Cepeda-Márquez, C40’s technical director Climate Leadership Waste and Water Program. This is also confirmed by the latest OECD statistics, according to which less than 10% of plastic waste worldwide is successfully recycled. The rest decays in nature and harms our health.

“If currently more than 90% of the plastics produced nationally are not recycled, we cannot expect this practice to be the solution,” agrees Ornela Garelli, specialist in responsible consumption and climate change at Greenpeace Mexico. Through a study published in 2019, this association found that in Mexico only 6.1% of all recyclable waste was recycled: cans, cardboard, paper and plastic.

The duration of the degradation can “range from 450 years to eternity, in many cases it will never go away,” says the C40 expert. As he explains: “More than 40% of low-density plastic material is used only once and then thrown away.” That means that at this rate, by 2050 nearly every species of seabird on the planet will be eating plastic, a 2015 study by University of California researchers predicted.

“Therefore, the most viable solution to plastic pollution is to recycle and use materials that maintain their value in the industry. So that a material stays useful for as long as possible, so that a bottle becomes a new one in the loop of the circular economy,” says Jaime Torres, communications director and member of ECOCE, a non-profit association that founded some 20 years ago shaped by the food and beverage industry . “From the organization we believe that the problem is so big that it cannot be delegated exclusively to one side. Industry has a share of the responsibility and must embrace eco-design that encourages recycling and reduces unnecessary plastic, but consumers must play their part,” defends Torres.

For Garelli, however, recycling is not the way to go. “Because it doesn’t change business models. “The only way to stop indoor contamination is to reduce the production of plastic that hasn’t stopped growing,” agrees Cepeda.

The world is producing more and more plastic

According to an OECD report, the Covid-19 crisis led to a 2.2% drop in plastic consumption in 2020 due to a global slowdown in activity. However, when the economy picked up again, consumption picked up even further, amplifying its impact ecosystems.

As can be seen from the various surveillance studies that Greenpeace has conducted In coastal ecosystems of protected natural areas in the states of Veracruz, Quintana Roo, and Baja California, the most common garbage that pollutes the beaches of the Gulf and Mexican Caribbean, as well as many of the country’s unique ecosystems, is concentrated in single plastic use. . Supermarket bags, styrofoam containers, glasses and plates, disposable cutlery: These include more than 90% materials that are not separated nationwide.

A garbage collector walks between plastic bottles at a garbage dump in Mexico City, August 31, 2021. A garbage man walks among plastic bottles at a garbage dump in Mexico City, August 31, 2021. Future Publishing (Getty Images)

“But if we differentiate between the different plastics that are out there, the percentages are very different,” explains Torres. In Mexico, more than 50% of polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET, which is widely used in the beverage and textile industries, can be recycled. “This sector is highly developed in our country: six out of ten bottles on the market are recovered. We have the highest index in the Americas, ahead of Brazil, Canada and the United States. We are on the same level as the average of the European Union,” emphasizes the ECOCE spokesman.

According to a report by this business association, today there are 480,000 if in 2010 the sector managed to recover 8,000 tons of plastic. “In 10 years, recycling has grown by 200%. “Very good information,” Torres qualifies.

“However, the production of PET is so high that we continue to find it in ecosystems every day,” says the Greenpeace activist. For her, “the discourse in favor of recycling was the perfect strategy for large companies that produce or market plastic to avoid taking actions that really help stop pollution. The companies that produce the most plastic also encourage recycling the most. And that’s proven,” he says.

Recycle more or produce less plastic?

Through clean-up programs and ecosystem waste collection, Greenpeace and other organizations have identified the brands of the most commonly found materials. “Nestlé and Coca Cola have been recognized for many years as the top contributors to the problem. The same ones who put recycling as the number one strategy to deal with the problem,” denounces the activist.

With almost 9 million inhabitants and human settlements growing every day, Mexico City is the pole that generates the most plastic waste in the country. But according to Cepeda-Márquez, “it has also positioned itself as a frontrunner in innovative waste management plans in recent years.”

Last year, the government of the capital announced the commissioning of a new facility in Azcapolcapo, the solid waste transfer and sorting facility, with a capacity of 1,400 tons of waste per day. A construction that began in 2019 and will be the fourth facility of this type in the city. And in 2020, Mexico City’s Legislature reformed the Garbage Act, which banned the commercialization, distribution and delivery of plastic bags to the consumer unless they were compostable, and forced supermarkets and grocery stores to charge for the bags.

Similar initiatives have been carried out in other Latin American cities such as Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Quito, Lima or Santiago de Chile, where in recent years local governments have passed laws restricting certain types of plastic materials.

“In Mexico, the law has been implemented very positively and is being observed. The problem is that it’s not necessarily optimally formulated,” says the C40 expert. “It bans the free distribution of single-use plastic bags smaller than a certain thickness. But if they charge you, obey the law. The assumption that the norm had was that thicker bags can be more resilient, but they still end up in nature,” he affirms.

There are up to 30 recycling plants for PET across the country. The biggest of all, nationally and internationally, is PetStar. It is located in Toluca, the capital of the state of Mexico, and is associated with Coca Cola. “One of the most polluting companies in the world,” says Garelli, for whom “recycling is not a harmless process, but one that has an impact on the environment. It requires a lot of water and energy, which contributes to the depletion of natural resources and generates waste. In many cases, plastics contain harmful toxins, as so many scientific studies have shown.”

A statement that the C40 expert agrees with. In the words of Cepeda-Márquez, “The plastics industry has used recycling awareness messages to shift the blame onto the consumer while flooding the marketplace and our urban ecosystem with plastic. Environmental education is very important and reuse is better than nothing. But what is urgent is to drastically reduce current production and put an end to this big lie about recycling,” he concludes emphatically.