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.

Related story

After Raising Water Rates, Phoenix Raises Trash, Recycling Fees

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