By Gerardo Bernache Pérez
The generation of waste is directly related to the consumption patterns of the population. This type of management is complex and will only be consolidated based on the commitment of city councils and broad citizen participation.
Garbage is a problem because its production is increasing and there is no proper management or control of its impacts. On the one hand, its management demands considerable amounts from the budget of the municipalities and the final disposal is the only way to get rid of the garbage. There are no waste treatments and effective separation programs are scarce, so most of the garbage ends up buried in deplorable conditions and causing high levels of contamination at the site and in the region.
The responsibility for the management of solid waste lies with the municipalities and these, in general, do not have the trained personnel or the economic resources to provide an efficient collection service and a treatment that does not cause environmental pollution. In reality, local governments are overwhelmed by mountains of tons of garbage generated by production, trade and consumption activities.
How much garbage is thrown away?
The generation of waste is directly related to the consumption patterns of the population. Such patterns have changed in recent decades towards the use of more material for packaging, shorter useful life of products and merchandise, reduction of the types of returnable containers and bottles, as well as an increase in packaging and materials that are commercially defined as "Disposable".
If in 1950 each inhabitant threw out about 300 grams of waste and the country had 25.8 million inhabitants, now, in the first decade of the 21st century, it has tripled the amounts of waste generation and throws away about 900 grams. The latest national census indicates that the population exceeds 103 million Mexicans. This means that if 7,740 tons of waste were generated in the 1950s, by 2005 there are about 93,000 tons every day. As can be seen, the problem has grown exorbitantly. The management of each ton of municipal waste costs a little more than 200 pesos, so the estimate of the cost of its management - distributed in the municipalities of the country - is in the order of 20 million pesos a day and about 7,300 million pesos annually.
Consumption patterns are not the same throughout the country and different conditions and variables can be found that affect it in various Mexican cities. This is illustrated by the generation of municipal waste, since the studies of the various cities report per capita amounts ranging from 715 grams in Morelia, to 898 grams in Hermosillo and 914 in Guadalajara. It is estimated that, on average, each Mexican throws away around 900 grams of garbage per day, although in the metropolitan area of Mexico City the amount can reach 1,400.
During the 1990s, the waste generated by the Federal District represented 14 percent of the national total, with a daily average of 12.5 thousand tons and close to 4.581 million tons annually. For 2008, it is estimated that the metropolitan area of Mexico City generated more than 20 thousand tons per day.
In second place for waste production, come the cities of Monterrey and Guadalajara, whose municipal waste generation is greater than 4,500 tons per day.
The challenge of comprehensive waste management
Waste management poses a series of challenges to control the high production of garbage, to establish efficient collection and transfer systems, as well as to control pollution vectors in landfills. These waste management problems are directly related to the political will to solve them and to the financial resources necessary to solve the service, this at the level of local governments. Although it is true that in many municipalities there is evidence of a lack of commitment from the high authorities, it is also a reality that the municipalities lack the necessary resources to pay for an efficient service with broad coverage.
The challenge of public management in the matter of comprehensive waste management is multiple. In the first place, we must mention the necessary impulse to programs of broad social participation that incorporate neighborhood groups in the transformation of garbage into waste, into material by-products for recycling. Thus, the new proposals for a sustainable management of urban services revolve around citizen participation and the co-management of waste.
Second comes the recycling process itself. It includes, on the one hand, the consolidation of separation programs and, on the other, the efficient marketing of separated materials to incorporate them as raw material in an industrial production process. It is important to promote and consolidate new markets for the commercialization of separated materials from municipal solid waste management programs. Until now, this has been the bottleneck that has discouraged separation programs because separated by-products are not easy to market. The separated waste does not go to the landfill so it does not produce pollution.
Third is the minimization or reduction in the production of garbage. Although the strategies currently available to achieve this are few, substantive changes are required in the forms of distribution and marketing of products. Minimization has to do with a series of actions focused on generating changes in production systems (for example: avoiding disposable packaging) and substantive modifications in current consumption patterns. The reduction implies generating less waste of packaging and materials because this way people would throw less garbage.
The General Law for the Prevention and Integral Management of Waste, approved in 2003, provides a regulatory framework that allows us to face the problem of urban waste with a public management that is more consistent with environmental principles and with greater efficiency in the administrative area. The law has reoriented public policies on waste management towards comprehensive management for sustainable development based on a scheme of shared responsibility between authorities and citizens.
The challenge is to promote the integral management of municipal solid waste as part of a broad municipal agenda for sustainable regional development. This type of management is complex and will only be consolidated based on the commitment of city councils and broad citizen participation.
The obligation to separate waste in Jalisco
The State Environmental Standard NAE-SEMADES-007/2008 of the state of Jalisco, which came into force at the end of last year, establishes “the criteria and technical specifications under which the separation, classification and recovery of waste must be carried out”. That is to say, the publication of the referred rule establishes that it is mandatory for city councils and companies that are responsible for waste management in the state.
The norm was drawn up by the State Secretariat of the Environment for Sustainable Development (Semades) and is directed, in the first place, to the municipalities that are responsible for providing the cleaning service in the municipalities. Second, it is aimed at the concession companies of municipal waste collection and final disposal services. And thirdly, to companies that provide collection services to businesses and industries.
Although the rule is well intentioned and it is desirable to promote separation, the fact is that a decree is not the magic solution to a large problem. To collect garbage separately, keep it separate and use it as raw material (recycling), important changes are required in the processes and in the traditional forms of waste management.
Such changes involve new knowledge, considerable investments in separate collection equipment, separation quality control systems, reclaimed materials marketing programs, industries capable of absorbing the flow of materials to produce new products, and a consumer looking to purchase goods that They have a component of recycled materials (green purchase).
When you are not ready to make the change in waste management strategy, the result leaves much to be desired. The municipalities of Jalisco, like those of the rest of the country, are not prepared for the change and have improvised mechanisms to try to comply, in part, with the separate collection.
In the case of the municipality of Guadalajara, the Caabsa concessionaire has no interest in managing separate waste, nor in promoting comprehensive management; their business is to produce more garbage and bury it at the cheapest cost; avoiding, as far as possible, complying with current environmental regulations. Therefore, the separate collection is reduced to the collection of organic material on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and inorganic ones, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
After four months of validity of the separation rule, it is only done in one sector of the municipality. Separate collection has no supervision, so if a user makes the wrong type of materials, or does not want to separate their waste, the collection truck still collects their waste in the same way as it did before. It is estimated that more than half of the population has responded to the call to separate their waste. The other half could also respond if they were seen under the scrutiny of supervision when delivering their waste.
On the other hand, a follow-up to the collection truck that is going to unload to the Los Laureles landfill, verifies that when it reaches this site it deposits its load directly in the trench where it is buried. The site does not follow the process of completing the separation process of all the materials so they are not marketed or used by the industry.
This is due in part to the negative attitude of the concessionaire regarding the separation rule. Another reason, also very weighty, is that the prices of recovered materials have fallen considerably as supply has increased, while the few industries that absorb the flow of these materials have been saturated. This is a bottleneck that hinders good separation intentions.
Finally, companies and industries do not generate products with recycled material because the Mexican consumer does not get used to the idea that the new products they buy have some dirty “garbage”. Which is not so. Such an attitude of the consumer inhibits the development of new recycled products and therefore there is not a good demand for separate materials.
Banning plastic bags a solution?
On March 17, the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District approved an amendment to the Solid Waste Law in which commercial establishments are prohibited from giving away plastic bags to pack their merchandise.
Despite the fact that the plastic bag is everywhere, its contribution to the torrent of garbage that is generated at the municipal level is barely 4 percent. The bags that commercial establishments give away are perhaps 2 percent. Assuming that the ban on their use was successful, it would only solve a small part of the garbage problem in Mexico City: 280 tons per day. How will the proper handling of the other 13,720 tons of garbage produced by the DF be carried out per day? Let's see the measure from another very focused problem: disposable diapers. In Mexico City, more than 700 tons of used diapers are collected every day, should they also be banned?
It seems clear that the use of the plastic bag has been abused and now we find it in the supermarket, in the taqueria, at the fruit and vegetable stand and many other places. We receive bag upon bag. It is a fact that we do not want so many and we do not know what to do with them, except to throw them away.
The prohibition reflects a good intention on the part of the legislators who approved it, but also their ignorance regarding an extremely complex problem that cannot be solved with the enactment of a law that prohibits a specific article.
The "biodegradable plastic" craze came to the United States in the early 1990s. However, it was short-lived when after close scrutiny it was determined that such plastics were more a result of a marketing strategy than a truly biodegradable product.
At that time certain additives were added to the plastic, usually based on corn flour, which supposedly ensured biodegradation. Some experts pointed out that, ultimately, such bags resulted in more plastic waste as the biodegradable bags were thicker, otherwise they would break easily.
Studies by Professor William Rathje (University of Arizona) in New York, Chicago, Phoenix and Tucson landfills found that “biodegradable” plastic bags break and flake (small pieces of plastic) in the context of trash burial. , but that does not mean that they degrade.
The bottom line is that a lot can be said about the "biodegradation" of certain plastics and other synthetic materials, but their complete degradation under the specific conditions of landfills is something that has yet to be demonstrated.
On the other hand, paper is a more benign material with the environment and is 100 percent recyclable. The above means that if we want to separate and recycle the paper we can do it without major problem. But just because a paper article or material is recyclable does not mean that it will automatically be recycled by consumers. If the plastic bags are exchanged for thick paper bags it can bring a great benefit. As long as these bags are separated and recycled. Otherwise, the environmental impact will be negative in the long run because we will use more paper and end up cutting down more trees to produce it.
The so-called easy solutions and by decree are an illusion that the world can be changed with a written phrase, without doing anything else and leaving all the responsibility to a specific sector of society: commercial establishments. The garbage problem will be solved with a combination of innovative public policies, with solid management programs, with environmental education and culture, with citizen participation and with the commitment of all. Laws and prohibitions can play an important role in a comprehensive sustainable waste management strategy. But by themselves and in isolation they do not result in an almost miraculous solution to the great problems that we face in the management of garbage.
Gerardo Bernache Pérez - CIESAS Occidente - Mexico - La Jornada Ecológica