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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Environmental | June 2007 

Litter Choking Streets Throughout Mexico
email this pageprint this pageemail usDudley Althaus - Houston Chronicle
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Garbage thrown into the streets is a common problem in Mexico City and the rest of the country — even in the capital city's upscale neighborhood of Condesa. (Keith Dannemiller/Chronicle)
Mexico City — Mexicans have become world-class litterbugs.

Soft drink bottles, snack wrappers, used diapers and cigarette butts clog city streets, rural highways and scenic beaches. Mountains of garbage stand sentry-like in empty lots and at the edges of bucolic rural villages. Discarded plastic bags hang in trees and dangle from cactus like bitter industrial fruit.

Not every Mexican litters, of course. And perhaps no one does so all the time. But enough of them do, enough of the time, that this nation of 105 million people is choking on its refuse.

Yet, there has been no concerted long-term anti-litter campaign. Only a smattering of Mexican towns and cities have municipal garbage dumps.

For many environmentalists, litter takes a backseat to fouled water, dirty air, coastline overbuilding, widespread deforestation and severe soil erosion. To many citizens, litter is all but invisible. And in the view of some observers, there is a lack of public responsibility.

"People see it as a problem that doesn't affect them, but it does," said Francisco Padron, director of a Mexico City civic organization aimed at educating the public on environmental issues.

Consider just a few impacts:

• Litter contributes to severe flooding in Mexico City every rainy season, which is beginning now, when discarded bottles and other trash clog storm drains. Each year the city government makes a plea to end the littering. And each year that plea is uniformly ignored.

• "Uncleanliness" — primarily litter — ranks first among the complaints of foreign tourists visiting Mexico, according to studies conducted by the Tourism Ministry.

• Haphazard roadside dumps serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, contributing to the outbreak of dengue fever and other diseases in rural southern villages.

Environmentalists blame a lack of government programs and corporate interest for much of the problem.

Fines for littering are rare and even more rarely enforced. Few cities or towns bother to put trash cans in the streets. Even where public trash cans do exist, they're seldom emptied.

Mexican environmental officials say that only several dozen of Mexico's more than 2,500 cities, towns and villages have a landfill or other kind of municipal garbage dump.

"There is a lack of political will," said Jorge Trevino, director of ECOCE (Ecología y Compromiso Empresarial), an industry-funded group that manages recycling and public awareness campaigns. "There is a lack of infrastructure. In many cities, there is a lack of planning. There is nowhere to put the trash."

But there's also a lack of public concern or responsibility, Trevino and other activists say.

People tuck pop bottles into hedges, trees and lampposts. Schoolchildren drop snack packages wherever they please. Drivers of intercity buses instruct passengers to toss refuse out the windows rather than leave it aboard.

There's also little downside, either legal or social, for the litterers.

"In the United States, you have an authority that is watching. Here in Mexico, there is nothing like that," Trevino said. "If you throw trash on the highway here in Mexico, no one says anything."

Like many of its social problems, Mexico's litter epidemic may be anchored in a deeply entrenched political system in which citizen input has been discouraged.

Not 'their' problem

Trash pickup in Mexico City and other urban centers has been free and largely controlled by labor unions, said Hector Castillo, a sociologist who studies the refuse industry at Mexico's National Autonomous University. Many Mexicans consider trash, including litter, to be somebody else's problem.

"They throw trash in the street because that's why they pay taxes," Castillo said. "Somebody else picks it up."

Litter has become a global problem, of course. But societies like Mexico's, whose exploding and still-poor populations crowd into cities and consume packaged food rather than what they produce themselves, suffer the most from it.

"There has been a more dramatic change in the types of waste we are producing than in the culture of disposing of that waste," said Padron, the Mexico City environmentalist. "Trash has been seen only as waste and not as valuable material that can be recycled."

Padron and other activists say corporations have an obligation to figure out how to dispose of packaging.

"In a responsible economy, they have the responsibility for what happens to their wastes," Padron said.

Mexico has yet to experience a watershed moment that brings litter to the forefront of public consciousness, environmentalists say. And anti-litter efforts must be intense, sustained and widespread to be effective. Even then, there are no guarantees.

Don't Mess With Mexico

The Don't Mess With Texas campaign, run by the state's Department of Transportation, is considered one of the more successful in the United States.

Texas officials say the amount of litter has been reduced by as much as a third since the start of this decade. Still, telephone surveys indicate that as many as 77 percent of Texans under the age of 25 admit to littering, and 55 percent of all Texans say they do.

ECOCE, Trevino's organization, began a television ad campaign several years ago aimed at shaming the public into taking care of trash.

Dubbed "no manches," which can loosely translate to "don't mess with," the effort featured children chastising people for tossing trash.

The ads, which had little apparent impact on public actions, have been discontinued for other campaigns.

"The trouble is, we're the only ones doing this sort of thing," Trevino said.

Still, there are some hopeful signs in Mexico.

A tiny market for recycled plastic bottles is growing, with most of the recovered plastic shipped to the United States and China for further processing.

Two years ago, ecotourism guides and a television network raised a ruckus about the trash clogging the Grijalva River inside the stunning Sumidero Canyon of the southernmost state of Chiapas.

Local, state and federal officials mobilized an army of workers to clean up the mess. More than 1,200 tons of garbage were collected from the narrow gorge in a few weeks. The officials claimed victory.

Today, news reports portray the river through the canyon as trashed out as ever.

"It's a war without end," said Marlene Ehrenberg, the Mexico City tour guide and environmentalist who first raised the alarm about the Sumidero.

"I'm so tired and fed up," she said.

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