Lessons Learned From Mexico City’s Ban On Single-Use Plastic Bags

MEXICO CITY — In the global environmentalist battle, Mexico City started fighting single-use plastic bags this year. But the impact and results from the ban still are debated by citizens, business people and nature preservationists.

Starting this year, Mexico City implemented a change in their waste management law, and now single-use plastic bags are banned. How this environmentalist move is affecting one of the largest cities in the world — and what can we learn from it?

Bagless Stores

Jessica López works in a Mexico City convenience store, one out of thousands of stores that are not allowed to use one-time plastic bags for customer purchases since January.

The Mexico City Congress approved last year a reform to the waste management law.

Starting this year, bans the use of carrier plastic bags in stores, except those used for fresh food to prevent health problems. Next year, the ban is expected to extend to other single-use products.

López says most customers have adapted to the measure but some still complain, like those who even wanted a bag for just a pack of cigarettes.

Jessica López works in a convenience store in Mexico City. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

“Selling bags is not a good alternative for us: it’s not profitable and not good for the environment,” López said.

And despite some customers buy less after forgetting to bring a bag, the majority carry reusable bags or even cones made out of newspaper.

“The ban might be helpful, but there’s many other polluting materials that should be banned or at least regulated to make a real difference,” the storekeeper said.

‘Molding’ The Industry

José del Cueto is president of the plastic bag division of the Mexican Association of Plastics. And, in a way, he agrees with López.

“This prohibition to specific products is not going to help. So, we need to try to improve the way we handle trash,” Del Cueto said, explaining that the reform is insufficient without a modification to the waste management processes and regulations.

Del Cueto says the industry already lost $81 million in the first two months of the year.

The executive said 95% of plastic bags in Mexico are made locally. There are more than 4,300 plastic bag companies in Mexico, generating 300,000 jobs.

José del Cueto is president of the plastic bag division of the Mexican Association of Plastics. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

But Del Cueto says factories are closing, firing people or struggling for resources to produce the newly required environmentally friendly bags.

“Plastic bags need to be made with compostable materials. Not reusable, not recyclable. Basically compostable. And that means we need to import, so we need to bring from China or Asia or Europe,” Del Cueto said.

The businessman said the industry is committed to reducing pollution, but it needs the government’s help and commitment. He says some substitute materials used for supermarket bags, like cotton or paper, may be worse than plastics.

More Than A Ban

“I think the industry has created a false dilemma,” said Ornela Garelli, ocean’s campaigner and one of the leaders in the campaigns to reduce plastic consumption for the environmentalist nonprofit Greenpeace Mexico.

And for her, it is possible to protect the economy and the environment simultaneously through innovation and changing the culture.

“The point here is to reuse the bag. It’s time to do something, and way to start is to supporting these kind of bans, Garelli said.”

Garelli said that although plastic bags represent less than 1% of the trash, their importance goes beyond.

“It’s not just the ban for itself, it is a change in our culture. We want the people to start seeing that our actions have an impact on the environment,” she explained.

Ornela Garelli is Greenpeace Mexico’s ocean’s campaigner. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

Garelli says everything we produce has an environmental impact, from paper to plastic or cotton bags. And the point of these kinds of bans is not to eradicate plastics — some of which are beneficial — but to limit single-use materials as much as possible.

“We consider that recycling is good, but it’s not the solution, because in the reality, we can see that we don’t have enough technical capacity,” the environmentalist said.

Garelli says only 9% of the plastic produced globally gets recycled. This drops to 6% in Mexico and the U.S.

Dealing With The Bags

On a Mexico City street, Arnulfo Acevedo and his co-workers pick up the trash, transporting 16 tons of it everyday.

“Some people complain about the ban because the alternative now is finding other containers for trash,” Acevedo said.

Arnulfo Acevedo (red shirt) has been collecting garbage in Mexico City for 44 years. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

He’s been collecting garbage for 44 years and says changes in waste management can be hard for many, but it’s necessary for the environment.

“Everything is possible here in Mexico. But to make things happen, people need to cooperate,” Acevedo said.

To salvage recycling, Phoenix increases solid waste residential rate by 24%

PHOENIX — The City Council voted Tuesday to increase the solid waste residential rate by $6.40 a month, which is to be phased in over the next two years.

The measure comes two years after China made significant cuts to how much recycled plastic, fiber and other waste it would accept, costing Phoenix multimillion dollar profits from solid waste.

The council’s 7-2 vote maintained the city’s current recycling and composting services by increasing the residential rate to $33.20. It was the first rate hike of its kind since 2009. Councilmen Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring voted no.

“This vote is an investment in our city’s future and an endowment toward sustainability for generations of Phoenicians to come,” Mayor Kate Gallego said in an email later. “It was time for Phoenix to re-examine the future of our trash collection services.”

The decision came after the council weighed four options regarding the future of Phoenix’s waste services. The other options proposed changing curbside recycling collections to every other week, terminating operations at the Phoenix composting facility for all customers, or suspending the recycling and compost programs.

Before the vote, representatives from the Phoenix Public Works Department made a presentation in support of the $6.40 a month rate hike, which they said the majority of residents wanted.

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They said the department held 51 community meetings over the past three months to get an understanding on where residents stood on the proposed possible increases.

“Our recommendation was the recommendation that our community told us was most important to them, ” said Joe Giudice, assistant director of public works. “What we thought was most important to the community was to maintain the services we are currently providing and to continue the city’s commitment toward sustainability and how (Phoenix) manages its waste.”

According to the online surveys conducted by the Public Works Department, 58% of respondents prefered to keep all services, despite the rate increase.

“If (Public Works drivers) don’t get the increase over the next two years … we’re going to lose 90 drivers,” Phoenix Public Works driver Robert Reidenbach said ahead of the vote. “We’re trying to keep 100 people from having to tell their families they don’t have a job.”

Before 2018, Phoenix would send 60% to 70% of its recycled waste to China in exchange for an annual payout. In 2017, the city made $13 million from recycled waste.

But since January 2018, China has significantly reduced the amount of waste it accepts because too much of it was contaminated with food and other nonrecyclable materials, dropping Phoenix’s total profit on recycled waste to $3 million in 2019.

Phoenix isn’t the only city that’s had to reevaluate recycling in the wake of China’s decision to scale back on solid waste purchases. Mesa reduced what it recycles because of the rising costs, Surprise suspended its program last August because of contamination and Tucson has reduced its recycling efforts.

Giudice said the rate increase “opens up a lot of opportunities for us to continue to be that city that people really want to continue to move to as they love living, working and playing in Phoenix.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal

Mexican Engineer Turning Prickly Pear Juice into Biodegradable Plastic

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – On a recent morning, Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor, sat down at a restaurant and ordered one of her favorite drinks: a blend of grapefruit, pineapple, celery, parsley, spinach and prickly pear cactus.

Pascoe Ortiz for years has been drinking this blend known in Mexico as jugo verde (“green juice”), but she said she also enjoys consuming the prickly pear – a national symbol and staple in the country’s diet – in the many forms in which its pads are popular: grilled, boiled or even raw with salads.

“Ay, que rico,” Pascoe Ortiz said, sipping her green juice. “It’s good.”

Pascoe Ortiz and her students at the University of the Valley of Atemajac just outside Guadalajara have come up with a new use for the prickly pear cactus – known in Mexico as nopal – using its juice as a base for biodegradable plastic.

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, an engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac (left), and Alejandra Reyes Diaz, a communications coordinator, disassemble the juicer Pascoe Ortiz uses to extract juice from prickly pear cactus. (Photo by Jorge Valencia/KJZZ)

In 2013, she recalled, some of her students came to her with a class project to use the prickly pear cactus as the base for a biodegradable plastic. They abandoned it after a semester, but Pascoe Ortiz said she told herself, “This can be done.” She continued the project on her own and with other students.

In her lab on campus, Pascoe Ortiz lays out round and square plastic samples she and her students have made since that first classroom experiment. The first samples are rusty brown and roughly the size and shape of U.S. quarters. The most recent samples are light green, paper thin and tough enough to be used as bags, Pascoe Ortiz said.

Samples of plastic made with prickly pear cactus juice by professor Sandra Pascoe Ortiz and her students at the University of the Valley of Atemajac. Pascoe Ortiz and her students began working on the formula in 2013. (Photo by Jorge Valencia/KJZZ)

She initially used Opuntia ficus indica, the variety of prickly pear most commonly used as food. Now she uses Opuntia megacantha, a variety not commonly eaten but instead cultivated for its fruit. She and her students extract the juice, which is bright green, thick and slimey, and mix it with glycerine, animal fat and wax.

A former student, Michelle Mendoza, who recently completed coursework in industrial engineering, is still working with Pascoe Ortiz. Mendoza said she used the formula to make toys for her 3-year-old daughter.

“My daughter loves to buy toys in the markets, and then once she played with it one day, she didn’t want it anymore,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza made the cactus mix and put it into strawberry-shaped molds, she said. Her daughter watched her make them and was excited to play with them at first, but then discarded them just as she’s done with her other toys.

“The same way,” Mendoza said with a laugh. “I need to fabricate more toys.”

At least the prickly pear-based toys will dissolve if she leaves them in water for three weeks, Mendoza said.

Using biodegradable products is good, but using fewer products would be better, said Stephanie Buechler, a University of Arizona professor who studies gender, environment and agriculture. We should focus on reusing the materials we have, she said.

“Using fewer materials will save land. It will save water. It will save the environment by not contaminating as much,” Buechler said. “And then, for the materials we really do need, we should think of ways like this to use less harmful inputs.”

Back at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, Pascoe Ortiz says she would like to see her biodegradable plastic used commercially, though said she plans to continue her work as a researcher and doesn’t expect to see a profit herself.

Pascoe Ortiz hopes the cactus-based plastic will help reduce the impact of solid waste in Mexico and around the world, she said.

“Maybe,” she said, “I’m too much of an idealist.”

This story was first published as a part of the Fronteras Desk, a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.

Phoenix hopes to build mill to recycle certain plastics, easing pressure on landfills

PHOENIX – Phoenix may be the first U.S. city to build a mill to remanufacture plastic containers. It’s an effort to clean up one part of a global trash problem that’s been mounting for decades and is only getting worse.

Curbside is where recycling ends for most of us, but for the city, it’s just the beginning of the process.

“Yogurt cups, different things – not the common ones like your water bottles and soda bottles because we have good markets for those – but other types of mixed plastics,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public-works director for the city. He’s has been collecting bids from contractors so Phoenix can remanufacture specific plastic containers into new goods and fuels.

“Phoenix’s approach is, ‘Hey, we want to develop new markets,’ ideally domestic markets, and we want to have something right here in Phoenix,” he said. Proposals were due back to the city on July 18.

It’s been more than six months since China stopped importing most plastic and paper waste from U.S. cities, which it was remanufacturing and selling there. China’s decision, spurred by pollution concerns, has left an immense void. There is no other market in the world as large, that consumes as much as China – not even the U.S. That means the business flow of recycling essentially has come to a stop worldwide, and more paper and plastic are winding up in landfills.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand.”

Adam Freed, Bloomberg Sustainability Desk

In 1950, estimates say, we created 1.7 million tons of plastic. In 2014, the total was 311 million tons, according to Adam Freed, principal at Bloomberg’s Sustainability Desk in New York.

Overfull landfills aren’t the only problem. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 20 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the plastic going into the ocean annually.

Odile Madden, a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, said plastic consumption and use is a cultural problem.

“We had to be taught, after World War II, to throw things away after using it once,” she said. “In fact, there is advertising that suggests, ‘Hey, don’t be stingy … throw that cup away … and just get a new one.'”

In just the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable rise in “convenience plastic”: water bottles, straws and cutlery, used once and thrown away. It’s a key component of America’s throwaway culture.

Freed said even if the recycling industry eventually finds a way to capture more of what can be recycled, there’s still the problem of landfills reaching capacity. Western states have about 20 years left, he said.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand,” he said, “so it’s just been an exponential increase in our plastic production, consumption and use. … Focusing on recycling once you’ve collected it is kind of like taking a Tylenol after you get the flu and thinking you did everything you could to prevent yourself from being sick. You’ve missed the opportunity to wash your hands, to get a flu shot, to be healthy, to avoid other people who are sick. You know that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how cities can more efficiently and productively collect and manage their waste streams.”

A 2017 comprehensive research study on the history of plastic production says plastics outpace every other manufactured material for the past 65 years.

According to the EPA’s figures, Americans generated 14.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2014, the last year EPA data was made available. Of that, 2.1 million tons, 14 percent, were recycled. But officials from Phoenix, Republic Services and other industry experts put the figure closer to 8 or 9 percent. The 2017 comprehensive found plastic recycling in the U.S. has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012.

According to a report released at Davos by the World Economic Forum, one truck of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Madden says it all comes down to our changing attitudes and expectations of what plastic actually is.

“I’m expecting that container for the soda to be pretty durable, but as soon as I’m done with that soda, I want that container to go away,” she said. “I expect that it will go away. So, it’s a cultural problem, using durable material as if they are disposable and then expecting that they will disappear.”

Just 5 to 8 percent of any consumer plastic gets recycled. The bulk of the remainder gets landfilled, as it has since consumer plastic products became part of society in the 1950s.

Giudice, the public-works director for Phoenix, says building a plastics remanufacturing plant in town is simply about responding to what residents say they want, which is to recycle more.

“The vast majority of plastics that come in have nice domestic markets for those products to made into something else. But these mixed plastics, where we had a market in China, we no longer do,” he said.