Héctor Castillo-Berthier
Institute for Social Research UNAM

Gains Hidden in Garbage

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 10:09

It is easy to simply throw garbage away without giving it another thought, but this waste does not simply disappear. Trash disposal is a complex economic activity involving large amounts of money, hundreds of thousands of people and political interests. It also represents an emerging opportunity for companies, provided regulations change and businesses have the foresight to see its bottom-line value.

A company’s ability to find value in waste will determine how much it can take advantage of it, according to Héctor Castillo-Berthier, a researcher and scholar at the Institute for Social Research of UNAM (IIS-UNAM) and a specialist in waste-related social dynamics. “The private sector generates, buys and resells garbage,” he says. He believes companies like Danone and PetStar are among only a few private organizations that have profited from their garbage. These companies hire scavengers and pay them decent wages to separate and collect recyclable materials that are reintroduced to companies’ manufacturing processes. The main barrier for more companies to enter waste management is that generally city governments are in charge of this activity and corruption is rife. “Officials often ask for bribes to surrogate these services to private companies,” he says.

According to 2015 data, the latest available, from Mexico City’s Environment Secretariat (SEDEMA), this city generates around 13,000 tons of waste daily or 4.8 million tons yearly, meaning solid waste transfer stations, which prepare the garbage from several municipalities for transportation, work at maximum capacity around the clock every day. “A lot of taxpayer money goes to sending garbage for disposal to the State of Mexico,” says Castillo-Berthier, SEDEMA reports that Mexico City’s waste-management costs total around MX$3 billion annually, or about MX$8.2 million a day. He calculates that about 300,000 people -– workers and their dependents –- rely on Mexico City’s garbage disposal directly or indirectly.

Castillo-Berthier lists two key trends where value from garbage can be extracted, each with its specific challenges. First, extracting biogas from organic waste, which amounts to half of all garbage produced in Mexico, to produce energy. “This can be a good business for companies,” he says. “But processing all the organic waste Mexico City produces would require 12 15ha plants that could process over 1,000 tons of trash a day and those do not exist yet.” The second trend is an increasing demand for elements found in electronic waste, such as silver, gold, platinum and other valued materials from computers, cellphones and discarded devices, which scavengers dig out and separate to sell. “There are two problems related to this activity: its health hazards are unknown and there is no regulation on the sale of these materials,” he says.

As with other markets, Mexico is part of the global waste trade. Castillo-Berthier explains that the country imports valuable garbage from other countries like high-quality wastepaper from the US and exports electronic waste to China. The main obstacle to this trade is that “Mexico’s recyclable and waste products market is largely unregulated so public budgets for it are mismanaged,” he says. “This prevents the implementation of better management.”

Garbage management also varies from city to city. “Monterrey, for example, manages its garbage in an industrialized way while other cities hire private companies to perform this activity,” Castillo-Berthier explains. “Oaxaca merely has open dumps into which people throw garbage without any second thought.” He points to Aguascalientes as an example of a municipality that has developed a moderately efficient system suited to the city’s needs but overall, he believes that the country manages its solid waste poorly, mindlessly and without a long-term vision. “To develop a system in which a city can take care of its garbage appropriately it is necessary to address local disposal systems and the type and amount of waste produced,” he says.

He uses Sweden as an example of a society that appropriately manages its garbage. “It has a strong consciousness regarding the processes of generation, collection and final disposition of garbage,” he says. Meanwhile, in 60 years there has been no initiative that seriously addresses the problem of garbage in Mexico. For the country to improve its garbage disposal and waste management, it needs a long-term, national strategy that meets the disposal needs of each area, he says..