In addition to the tons of microplastics floating in the Pacific Ocean, one of the biggest landfills in all the world is Bordo Poniente in Mexico city. Or rather, it was the biggest facility until the government shut it down in the pursuit of greener options.
Covering an area of approximately 1,500 acres and receiving 12,600 tons of waste per day, the site has been a mainstay in the municipality’s waste management efforts since its creation in 1985. There are still over 70 tons of waste buried underground causing serious water and air pollution issues.
However, people seem to think its closure was a smart idea for the environment as well as Mexico’s future. That is, everyone except the “trash pickers” who have based their very livelihood on the generation of garbage.
About 4,500 of these individuals, known as pepenadores, have been sorting through Mexico’s trash for decades. They have found themselves in a difficult position after the closure of Bordo Poniente. So, while many applaud the elimination of the landfill, it’s also important to consider the unseen consequences of the landfill’s closure – the people it left behind.
Business of the Past
There was a time not so long ago when picking trash was a vibrant business, drawing many entrepreneurs to the landfill looking for work. During this time, politicians and government agencies counted on the pepenadores to serve as active members of society.
But with the closure of Bordo Poniente, all that changed. The trash pickers have been largely forgotten, leaving them financially challenged and frustrated.
When the shutdown was first announced, the trash pickers blocked the arrival of giant trash vehicles in protest, demanding some recognition of their predicament. In response, the mayor of Mexico City announced plans for an upcoming methane-fueled power plant and the promise to keep the pepenadores working in some capacity.
He was true to his word, redesigning the plan so the separation plant would remain open. That way, workers could pick through the garbage for reusable material (to be recycled or sold) before it was sent off to other plants.
This meant the garbage had to be trucked to Bordo Poniente before heading off to smaller sites. However, it was an agreement the mayor was willing to make.
Business of Today
Although only one-tenth of the garbage that used to come through the plant arrives today, it still creates approximately $50 a week in income for the workers. During the day, the pepenadores sift through the garbage moving by on a conveyor belt, dropping cans, bottles, and other items they find into bags.
They are careful to find anything that can be reused, including pink vinyl limbs from old baby dolls and aluminum license plates. Although the work can be tedious, it is estimated that a quarter of a million people in Mexico City depend on trash to make a living and support their families.
Granted, the plant provides a traditional and a legitimate career for many. However, keeping the plant open permanently to provide employment for trash pickers is not economically feasible.
Because the trash continues to be detoured back to the site, there has been a significant uptick in petrol usage in the area. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And with the development of a city-wide plan to install large plastic containers on street corners to separate waste, the livelihood of the trash picker is even further jeopardized.
To make matters worse, independent trash collectors have pepenadores of their own. These individuals are digging through the trash before it even reaches Bordo Poniente, reducing the already-diminished supply of reusable trash even more.
The closure of Bordo Poniente continues to pose an interesting long-term problem for the community of Mexico City. Of course, making more sustainable decisions is in the best interest of everyone, especially the planet. However, it does not feel that way to a large number of people who are facing a future without access to the waste that has been their livelihood for many years.
Many of these trash pickers have worked in the industry for over 40 years. These individuals have developed specialties during that time, focusing on metals or plastics. As a result, they pride themselves on their abilities. Furthermore, some are single mothers trying to stay afloat in a society that offers few alternatives.
When it comes to the evolution of waste management methods, it’s important to remember that major shifts in practice are not always met with enthusiasm. The larger decisions, such as the closure of Bordo Poniente, must be made to move forward with environmental integrity. However, there are inevitably those who are left behind by the advancements, struggling to find their new place in a more modern world.