One of the World’s Biggest Cities Outlawed Single-Use Plastic
Mexico City’s 22 million people discovered change is not that simple.
Elizabeth Villagómez Cruz rarely runs afoul of the “Five Rs” of zero-waste living—refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot—no matter what it takes. One day while traveling, she was craving esquites, a common snack sold by street vendors throughout Mexico, made of corn kernels in a cup with salsa and mayonnaise. She refused a Styrofoam cup from the vendor and was without a reusable container after her dogs chewed up the one she normally carries in her car. But the vendor came up with a creative solution.
“The gentleman, in order to make the sale, went and asked another vendor who sold tamales for a plantain leaf … and gave me my esquites in a plantain leaf,” says Villagómez, who founded Zero Market México, a chain of stores in Mexico City that cater to the zero-waste lifestyle. She says this episode is the perfect illustration of uniquely Mexican, ingenious solutions to reducing waste.
“I believe those who want to help the environment can come up with a creative solution in a country like ours,” Villagómez says.
The greater Mexico City metropolitan area is home to nearly 22 million people, making it one of the largest urban areas in the Western hemisphere. But along with the city’s size comes an equally large waste problem.
Big City, Bigger Plastic Problem
Mexico City’s environment secretariat determined the Mexican capital produces nearly 13,000 tons of garbage every day within city limits, with nearly half coming from household waste. Between 30% and 35% of that daily waste is composed of packaging materials, the vast majority of which is made of plastic. In other words, chilangos—a playful term used to refer to people living in the capital—produce a lot of plastic waste that ends up littering streets or filling landfills, impacting residents’ quality of life and making the city less habitable.
From biogas plants to recycling programs, Mexico City authorities of various political stripes have been trying to tackle—with varying degrees of success—the city’s waste problem since the first waste management program was implemented in 2004. The city has long struggled to develop an integral waste management program. The administrative divisions that comprise the metropolitan area make coordination between local governments difficult. Landfill sites are under private control, and those involved in the informal economy that sees people sort through garbage and dumps for recyclable materials to sell are reluctant to implement changes that could affect their income.
In an effort to respond to public demands for action on the environment and habitability, the administration of Claudia Sheinbaum, the city’s head of government who previously served as environment secretary for the city, decided to try a different tactic. In addition to the city’s ongoing efforts to manage and reduce waste, it also implemented changes intended to reduce the production and consumption of plastic waste.
In 2019, the city’s legislature approved reforms to its Solid Waste Law, banning single-use plastics, making it one of the largest jurisdictions in the world to enact such a measure.
Valentina de Leo, communications coordinator at Plastic Oceans México, a nonprofit that works to end plastic pollution, says the effort to change the city’s law was a grassroots struggle, born from civil society, which took inspiration from similar efforts in Europe. Activists and NGOs, including Plastic Oceans México, created the Mexico Without Plastics Alliance, which brought together dozens of environmental organizations in order to participate in the legislative process and provide a vehicle for people to confront lobbying by the plastics industry and its efforts to uphold the status quo.
As part of the staggered rollout of the law, in 2020 stores were banned from giving plastic bags to customers. Starting this year, stricter measures came into effect, banning more than a dozen single-use plastics such as utensils, plates, straws, balloons, and coffee pods.
Salvador Ávila, executive director at Plastic Oceans México, considers the city’s effort to reduce the consumption of plastic an important step forward.
“There isn’t a product in the world that we can over-consume in a sustainable way,” says Ávila.
Still, there has been great resistance from the plastics industry. Even after the reform was approved, the industry worked to delay its implementation, citing fears that the ban would have a negative economic effect.
Ávila says he understands the reticence of some, but argues that the moment calls for more urgency.
“The problem is that this issue is so big that we cannot proceed slowly; we cannot allow change to happen at a comfortable pace,” says Ávila.
It is a sentiment shared by de Leo, who argues that private industry has had time to adapt.
“If [the general public] were sufficiently aware of how serious the problem is, people would be demanding that this legislation be expanded to have even greater reach,” says de Leo. “I am not saying it is easy, but at the end of the day, economic benefits cannot be justified in light of the harm to people’s health and the environment.”
Resistance to change has not only come from the plastics industry, however. An informal survey in late 2020 by the city’s environment secretariat found that only 42% of restaurants and street-food vendors had stopped giving out single-use plastics.
“You cannot demand a street vendor in [the working-class borough of] Iztapalapa or right here in [the borough of] Cuauhtémoc to stop using plastics when officials have not approached them to give them an orientation, when there is no cooperation with civil society groups who could contribute to this cultural shift,” says Piero Barandiarán, one of the leaders at the Huerto Roma Verde, a community center in Mexico City that promotes environmental and social justice.
Gonzalo Marino Peña Davila is a street-food vendor in the Juárez neighborhood of Mexico City. His family has been selling tacos, quesadillas, and other Mexican food in the neighborhood for 39 years.
Peña says that he supports the new law, and wants to see more action taken to preserve the environment, but that vendors like him need more support. While he is in regular contact with city officials, authorities have yet to talk to him about the changes to the Solid Waste Law.
Nonetheless he has begun to make changes on his own, such as reducing his use of single-use plastics and buying biodegradable utensils and plates.
“We’ve had to absorb that cost because we cannot raise our prices; we’ve kept our prices the same for two years so that we do not lose any customers and so that our customers leave happy,” says Peña.
Although his business has been able to stay afloat despite the pandemic, he concedes that he has already seen a drop in customers and these new rules could not have come at a worse time.
“It has been very difficult and our income has dropped, but we have been working everyday this whole past year during the pandemic and that is how we have managed,” says Peña.
Peña says some of his customers are environmentally conscious and come with containers in hand to take food home, but others continue to ask him to prepare meals to go using plastic bags. Peña says he tries to reason with them where possible, asking them to take the food wrapped in paper instead, but he feels he has no choice but to concede to a customer’s demands for plastic for fear of losing a sale.
Beyond that, Peña says he has done what he can to try to get his customers to adapt, putting up signage about the new law, but he says more could be done to change people’s habits.
Making Zero Waste Mexican
Zero Market México’s Villagómez says that, in her experience, changing habits in Mexico does not come easy.
Villagómez started her zero-waste lifestyle while living in France after attending a workshop with Bea Johnson, a prominent figure in the modern zero waste movement. In France, Villagómez found it easy to make changes to her habits. She had no trouble finding stores that welcomed reusable containers, and finding and purchasing goods that complied with the Five R’s came easy.
Upon returning to Mexico, however, she found that the infrastructure to support the lifestyle simply did not exist, and she struggled to find the products she needed.
“To find what I was looking for I had to go to 80 different places,” says Villagómez.
She also found there was resistance from vendors and stores when she would try to use her own container. Even her family criticized her, telling her it was like going back to the Stone Age.
So she decided to try to solve the problem herself, and began selling products that help people adopt the zero-waste lifestyle, such as reusable containers, zero-waste personal hygiene products, and cleaning products free of excessive packaging. At first, she sold in bazaars and markets, but in 2017, she decided to open a permanent physical store. Zero Market now has three storefronts around Mexico City and one in Santiago de Querétaro, offering more than 750 products on sale.
Since founding Zero Market, Villagómez says she has seen how the movement has grown and how her own list of vendors that abide by zero-waste rules has expanded. She is confident that despite the cultural barriers present, the zero-waste lifestyle could become mainstream in Mexico, as long as it reflects the local realities.
“We Mexicans have it ingrained in us that we must do what we can with what we have. Sometimes we do not have as many resources as wealthy countries, and we creatively solve [problems],” says Villagómez.
Reflecting on her experience with the esquites vendor who got creative to make the sale, she says, “I am sure that in France, or any other country, this ingenuity to make it work with whatever is on hand would not happen.”
The zero waste movement has been regularly criticized for being inaccessible to working class and low-income people. Villagómez says one of the things that appealed to her about the zero-waste lifestyle was the potential to save money. As a result, she works to ensure that the items she sells are priced affordably, something that has even greater significance in a country like Mexico with its high levels of poverty and inequality. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico has the fourth-highest proportion of the population in poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But there is a still a stigma in Mexico about the zero-waste lifestyle. “The mindset that this lifestyle is only for the wealthy exists in Mexico,” says Villagómez. “We want to change that mentality.”
She suggests that low- and middle-income countries could export the creative and accessible solutions developed in the Global South. As an example, she points to the invention, by a Brazilian student, of a sustainable banana fiber tampon to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to low-income people.
Villagómez argues that one major oversight in the rollout of Mexico City’s plastic ban was the absence of public education to equip consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions and demand change from vendors.
Piero Barandiarán of the Huerto Roma Verde community center says he understands the city has a limited capacity to educate the public, but argues that it could have worked together with civil society groups who have decades of experience and connections to their communities. Without more of an effort to create consciousness in the public, he fears this could be a “dead law” that is openly flouted.
Huerto Roma Verde is home to a wide array of projects, from permaculture to seed conservation to a recycling depot; the space regularly hosts community events and festivals in non-COVID times; there is a sweat lodge for traditional healing; and a cat rescue shares the space.
Barandiarán says that people who drop off their recyclable materials at the depot do so on a voluntary basis, and instead of being paid for the material, they get in-kind gifts, such as seeds or plants. The experience of Huerto Roma Verde shows the will to take action on environmental issues is there—but city officials have not learned how best to tap into it.
“We would love it if government and private industry would collaborate more with us, but at the end of the day, what has always solved this situation has been self-determination and the cooperation of all of these people who are here in this space, donating their labor, donating their knowledge, and betting on a cause that is giving a sense of purpose to many people who live in cities,” says Barandiarán.
Nonetheless, those at Huerto Roma Verde are constantly working to forge new partnerships. In what often comes as a surprise to visitors who see the care that is taken to make it an ecological space, Barandiarán says they even work with Coca-Cola’s affiliate FEMSA. With financial assistance from private industry, Huerto Roma Verde has been able to purchase plastic processing machines. The hope is to eventually use recycled plastic to make street furniture that will be installed throughout the city.
Similarly, Plastic Oceans México is seeking to work with the federal government to develop an education module that can be implemented in schools across the country. The hope is also that the single-use plastic ban in Mexico City could serve as a model for a nationwide law, with Plastic Oceans México already working with federal lawmakers to make it a reality and affect change at a broader level.
“There is no way that environmental aims will be met if private industry, civil society groups, and government do not work together,” says Barandiarán. “For us it is quite necessary to take advantage of this socio-environmental knowledge and innovation hand-in-hand with government and private industry. This lack of cooperation is what is causing us to have serious habitability problems in the city.”
At one point, Huerto Roma Verde was working with Victor Toledo, a well-regarded biologist and environmentalist who was then the federal environment secretary, to implement the community-center-cum-permaculture model developed by Huerto Roma Verde in every state in the country, but Toledo’s exit from the environment secretariat killed the project.
“It becomes very complicated to collaborate with authorities when their political will does not translate into acts,” says Barandiarán.
Still they press forward with their efforts to replicate their success, working to create a similar project in the municipality of Xochitepec, in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City.
“We have to start working hand-in-hand and I think that is precisely the proposition of the Huerto: to see each other as equals, see each other as part of the same cause and that we need, no matter what, a space where we can start to find common ground,” says