The Mexican capital is a long way from meeting its recycling goals.
Credit: Photo Stock
Time Running Out for Mexico City's Garbage
By Diego Cevallos
The capital of Mexico, home to nine million people, has a gigantic dump that is on the verge of collapse and emits two million tons of climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually.
MEXICO CITY, Sep 15 (Tierramérica).- If the municipal government of Mexico City were to keep its promises, laid out in laws and plans from 2003 and 2004, the treatment of the 12,300 tons of garbage produced daily by the metropolis would be more environmentally friendly. But instead there is a threat of collapse and a huge contaminated area.
The Bordo Poniente dump emits two million tons of carbon-based gases into the atmosphere each year, which represents 15 percent of the greenhouse effect gases produced by this city of nine million people, second only to automobiles, the main source of climate changing gases. Closing down the dump would be the equivalent of taking some 500,000 cars off the roads.
After at least four postponements in five years, the Bordo Poniente, opened in 1985 in the east of the capital, will be shut down in January. But for now there is no alternative dump site, although the authorities are considering various possibilities.
"The situation is complicated and time is running out, but the authorities are making an effort and we are confident that a crisis will not erupt," said Alfonso de la Torre, an expert in municipal waste management and head of the environmental management department at the Autonomous Metropolitan University.
"The citizens have no idea what they might face if there is no place to put the garbage," De la Torre told Tierramérica.
The city lacks money to close down the dump in compliance with environmental standards, which require engineering works and possibly the construction of a gas emissions collector to generate electricity. The cost would be about 100 million dollars.
Nearly all of the capital's waste management plans, including the construction of four recycling and energy centers and a new fleet of garbage trucks, fail to make it from paper to reality or lag far behind schedule.
The 2004 Integrated Program for Solid Waste Management, which called for setting up the recycling and energy centers and closing down the Bordo dump, projected that by 2008 three-quarters of the residents of Mexico City should be separating household waste for recycling. Today, less than 10 percent of the people in the capital do so.
Official studies indicate there are another 130 unauthorized garbage dumps in ravines, green areas and vacant lots around the city, and some 6,000 in the areas surrounding the capital. The dumps foment harmful fauna, like rats, and the liquid runoff from the decomposing waste filters into water supplies.
De la Torre admits that there are no studies about the real impact of the illegal dumps on the environment, but he believes the effects remain limited. However, the president of the Mexican Federation of Sanitation Engineering, Jorge Sánchez, believes that "the capital has hit bottom."
"The authorities must see this moment of shutting down Bordo Poniente as an opportunity to move from pragmatism to a new framework for waste management, because the current model no longer works," Sánchez told Tierramérica.
The government, which owns the Bordo Poniente land, ordered its permanent closure when it realized it was saturated and threatens to contaminate the aquifer and water channels. The municipality asked for more time, but finally agreed to shut it down.
The 375-hectare dump has been receiving the bulk of the capital's waste since the 1980s. Ninety percent of the more than 12,000 tons of garbage arriving daily -- half of it domestic -- is buried, the rest is sold and recycled.
If the plans made more than four years ago by the capital's government -- led since 1997 by the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) -- had been carried out, by now the city would be well on its way towards sustainable management of its waste.
The goals, now redefined, were to recycle 20 percent of the waste, use 45 percent energy generation, set aside 20 percent to produce fertilizer and bury the remaining 15 percent.
With the closure of the Bordo Poniente dump, the municipality is negotiating with the neighboring state governments the possibility of sending them the garbage for a set amount of time and promises to have at least one of the recycling and energy centers up and running in 20 months.
"There is no other alternative than to make a leap in waste management, so we are hoping that the plans come in with funding, clear timelines and programs aimed at involving the citizens, which is fundamental," said the president of the Mexican Federation of Sanitary Engineering.
Martha Delgado, environmental secretary of the capital's government, says it would have been better to postpone the Bordo Poniente closure, because "the new waste management model is a matter that will take several years" to resolve.
In September 2007, Delgado admitted that despite the 2003 Solid Waste Law, which has yet to be enacted, and the 2004 management plan, the capital had been "incapable" of coming up with a new way to handle its garbage.
In late August, the authorities announced bidding for the work needed to close down the Bordo Poniente dump and the construction of the energy and recycling centers, with the aim of sharing the costs with the private sector.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the residents continue to set out their garbage without separating the different materials -- and nearly all of it ends up in Bordo Poniente. Some 2,500 trucks carry the garbage. Half of the vehicles are more than 10 years old and some have been around since 1965. The trucks themselves pollute and they lack space to carry separated materials.
The city now has 250 modern garbage trucks, but needs more than 2,000. The city officials recognize that such a purchase is beyond the means of the municipal budget.
University expert De la Torre attributes the lack of action by the authorities to "society's resistance to change," political problems and lack of resources.
However, sanitation engineering president Sánchez believes the problem lies in the short-term culture of the government leaders and their reticence to upset the voters. "There is no long-term vision, but this cannot continue, because soon there will be no place to put the garbage," he said.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.