By Kary Vannice
On November 18, 2020, the Mexican Senate approved a bill that first had been proposed back in February of 2019. The bill proposes an overhaul of waste management at every link in the supply chain, starting with city garbage collection and ending with a “zero waste” circular economy where all garbage is either recycled, reused or composted.
However, there is one critical link in the chain that is often overlooked by policy makers because it comprises the politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized poor – scavengers.
In 2014, a study sponsored by Boston University estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 4 million people scavenge through trash for a living in Latin America. Six years and at least a dozen economic crises later, it’s only logical that number is now much higher. And like much of the rest of Latin America, Mexico has not been spared economic hardship in the last six years.
When interviewed by Bloomberg Law, Rusty Getter of Balcones Resources, an American environmental services company with close ties to the Mexican recycling sector said, “Any significant change in the Mexican waste processing landscape will be a major challenge and affect untold throngs of people who currently depend on that stream for their livelihood.”
He went on: “I would go so far as to say that the true recycling rate in Mexico is significantly higher than that of the U.S., due to the fact that the ‘hand-picked’ commodity volume can apparently allow a family to eke out a subsistence income.”
According to Greenpeace, Mexico produces more than 37.5 million tons of garbage a year. And while Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are applauding the bill on the grounds that it will mean reductions in land based pollutants as well as improvements in both air and water quality, they are leaving out the fact that families who make their living from scavenging trash bins and dumpsters may suffer if the government’s total cleanup a success.
Martin Medina, a Mexican-born political scientist, has dedicated his life to the study of trash scavengers. He remembers as a child often seeing men, women and even children picking through piles of garbage in the Mexican town where he grew up. He is one of the world leaders on the underground economy of turning trash to cash and just what it means to local, regional and national economies.
His studies have helped shed light on what most societies and governments would prefer to keep in the dark, or at least push to the outskirts of what they consider to be civilized living. In an article published by ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Medina broke down the numbers of the true economic impact of the life of the lowly scavenger:
The World Bank estimates that about 15 million people worldwide work as scavengers. Assuming a median income of US$5 a person per day, their global economic impact is at least US$21.6 billion dollars a year, and about US$7 billion in Latin America. Scavenging cuts down on imports of raw materials, which enables the country to save hard currency. Scavenger-recovered materials are often exported, thus generating hard currency. In Argentina and other countries, for instance, PET, the clear plastic used to make beverage containers, is exported to China, where it is recycled into new products. … In Brazil alone, scavenging has an annual economic impact of about US$3 billion.
But plastics aren’t the only high ticket item here in Mexico. Medina’s article also pointed out that wood pulp in Mexico is seven times more costly than the recycled wastepaper recovered by scavengers. Couple this with the fact that recycling factories are cheaper to build and use less energy, and all of a sudden, those scavengers are dramatically helping to reduce a company’s bottom line.
Medina also often debunks the myth that scavengers have no place in the modern waste management systems. He argues that relying heavily on advanced technology not only reduces the number of available jobs, but also edges out the critical link scavengers play in the garbage chain. They essentially offer free labor to municipalities. Their positive impacts are not only economic, but also environmental, since they contribute to more items being recycled than normally would be, which saves both energy and water. It also means fewer raw materials are needed to manufacture goods, thus reducing the destruction of Mexico’s valuable natural resources.
While last month’s “Zero Waste” bill did pass, the means to achieve that lofty goal have yet to be determined. Perhaps Mexican policy makers, like Medina, will see scavengers as part of the solution and not the problem, and find ways to ensure they can continue to feed their families and positively impact the Mexican economy.