In a sea of waste: the necessary change


An overview of the problem of waste in Mexico and in the world, initiating reflection on its multiple origins, especially the predominant development model and one of its distinctive correlates, the consumer society. 

It also details the various consequences of inadequate waste management, both on the health of people and ecosystems, while highlighting the processes of reintegration of the waste we generate into environmental processes and economic chains as one of the greatest challenges of our societies.

The invitation is for everyone - civil society, government, and citizens - to rethink waste beyond reducing consumption, reusing, and recycling, considering the differentiated responsibilities of each, as well as the limits and scope of possible contributions to the issue.

Among mountains of waste

Mountains of garbage, tons and tons accumulating, challenging any mechanical shovel that is put in front of them, polluting rivers, lakes, oceans. Garbage in city planters, in telephone booths, in the cracks in the walls. Bags of chips in the highest mountains, bottles of water on the most remote islands, even in places - incredible as it may seem - that have never been reached by a human being.

These are landscapes that have become commonplace, but is it inevitable that the planet will become our garbage dump, what are the consequences of the current production of waste, for the environment and the health of people and ecosystems around the planet, what can we do to reduce that impact?

In nature, garbage does not exist. Everything that a living being discards (including its own organism) is taken advantage of by others, reincorporating itself into the biogeochemical cycles of the planet. But every year we humans produce more waste, saturating and contaminating the natural systems that do not manage to degrade our garbage, neither by the amount nor by the type of materials we throw into the system.

When we speak of garbage, we refer to the disruption of all this waste, gathering in impressive quantities of materials that are simply wasted. The term waste, on the other hand, refers to these same materials but separated, handled, recycled, and treated in such a way that their components can be used to their fullest potential in new production and consumption cycles, as we will see later on. In this case, we refer to waste in a general way.

According to the World Bank, the current levels of generation of Urban Solid Waste (USW) on a global scale are around 1, 300 million tons per year, and its production is expected to reach 2, 200 million tons by 2025. Each year, we produce at least 10 percent more waste than the previous year.

This represents a significant increase in the pace of its generation. For example, it is estimated that each inhabitant of the United States produced 700 grams per person in 1962, but today they produce almost two kilos, according to Duke University.

In the case of Mexico, and according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, it was estimated that 42.1 million tons were generated, which is equivalent to a daily production that exceeds 115 thousand tons. The daily per capita generation grew from 300 grams in 1950 to 990 grams, that is, each Mexican throws away 361 kilograms of garbage per year, but we are millions of people in the country!

This accelerated and gigantic production of waste has been contributed to by the increase in population, its growing urbanization (currently more than half of the world's population lives in cities), industrial development, technological changes, and the modification of the population's consumption patterns.

But... since we do not all consume the same, we do not produce the same amount or the same type of waste. There is a notable difference in the composition of waste between families, regions, and countries, depending on their level of income and access to different consumer goods. Lower income is related to lower consumption, as well as a higher percentage of organic matter among the components of waste.

According to Semarnat, "the case of Mexico illustrates the transformation between both types of economies: in the 1950s, the percentage of organic waste in the garbage was between 65 and 70 percent of its volume, while by 2007, this figure had dropped to 50 percent".

Reducing the generation of waste and managing it efficiently (i.e., where it goes, how it is processed and recycled, and where those that cannot be recycled are deposited) is one of the greatest socio-environmental challenges of our civilization, and each of us can play an important role in improving the situation.

Consuming the planet: the origin of the problem

Consumption is an activity that we carry out every day, at all times, however, we rarely stop to think about the origin of the products we buy or the impacts they generate on the environment before, during and after their use.

Our civilization has notably increased the intensity and amplitude of the natural resources it exploits to generate consumer goods. The generations born between the 20th and 21st centuries are responsible for producing the greatest amount of waste in our history as a species.

It is estimated that an American born in the 1990s will be responsible, directly or indirectly, for the generation of approximately one million kilograms of atmospheric waste, ten million kilograms of liquid waste, and one million kilograms of solid waste. Similarly, a single person in an industrialized economy will use 700 kilograms of minerals, eat 25 thousand kilograms of vegetables, and 28 thousand kilograms of meat and animal products.

A baby in the United Kingdom will have consumed 1,900 diapers during his first year of life alone, which will have required for their production: cellulose fiber (from trees), gels, and plastic polymers; for the covers and packaging: more plastics, colorants, and adhesives derived from petroleum. In addition, fossil fuels to bring the materials to the plant, water, and energy to manufacture them, toxic substances such as chlorine to bleach the fibers, more plastics and paper for packaging, and more fuels for transportation to the stores, perhaps located on the other side of the world.

The diaper will last a few hours for the small user and will be disposed of, probably in a plastic bag, and will require more fuel to transport to the landfill or incinerator. Almost none of its components are biodegradable, so it will remain in a landfill for many years or perhaps end up floating in the sea.

Here it is necessary to insist that we do not all consume the same. At his young age, the baby in the example is already responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as an inhabitant of Tanzania will produce in his lifetime.

The amounts and types of waste we generate are related to the predominant capitalist development model, which requires the constant and growing production and consumption of goods and services, as well as to the technological advances on which this model is based and which have allowed a part of humanity to radically change its lifestyle.

Thus, we live in a society that promotes the adoption of a consumerist attitude, defined as the "immoderate tendency to acquire, spend, or consume goods, not always necessary". Authors like Joan Torres define this attitude using a devastating metaphor based on the Cartesian classic: " I consume, therefore I exist". Consumption has become, for many, the fundamental basis of their existence.

What happens before and after consumption seems alien, distant, however, the consequences of exploitation and transformation of nature sooner or later reach us, although as always, these tend to be more devastating for marginalized human groups (paradoxically those who consume less). Not to mention ecosystems and biodiversity, which suffer directly from our unbridled desire to consume.

There is also a tendency to think that the only waste for which we are directly responsible is that which we generate at home or in our daily lives, but we neglect the fact that industry produces waste in our name: industrial waste is the by-product of consumer demands. So it is our duty to understand the relationship between our consumption habits and the magnitude of the impacts it generates on the environment, other ecosystems, and other human communities.

One action, multiple consequences

Unwrap the packaging of a chocolate ice cream, taste it, stretch out your arm and place the plastic container in a container. Is that all? As we have seen, it is far from being the complete history of our waste.

The inadequate disposal of waste has various impacts on ecosystems and the health of the population, such as the generation of greenhouse gases (whose presence in the atmosphere is contributing significantly to increasing global temperatures, causing global climate change). The accumulation of garbage produces these types of gases, such as methane (CH4), which can also produce explosions or fires, carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), as well as highly toxic volatile compounds (ace-tone, benzene, styrene, toluene).

Plastic particles floating in the ocean have been shown to contain high levels of organic pollutants. Toxic chemicals [such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organic pesticides such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and bisphenol A (BPA)] have been consistently found in plastic waste in the world's seas.

These substances are persistent toxic chemicals (they do not degrade easily), bioaccumulative (they reach higher concentrations in the tissues of organisms than in their environment) and biomagnify (they accumulate in the tissues through the food chain, i.e. a human who eats fish that were in turn eaten by contaminated fish will accumulate a higher concentration of the toxins), whose effects are very harmful to health, especially to fetuses and newborns, since these substances have been found in breast milk. As they are neurotoxic, they alter the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, the development of the thyroid, the hypothalamus, and the chromosomes.

Garbage also produces lixiviats (liquids) that contaminate soils and bodies of water, whether superficial, such as rivers, or subway aquifers, and its accumulation promotes the appearance of harmful fauna such as rats, mosquitoes, flies, and other animals that, in turn, are vectors of viruses, bacteria, protozoa and fungi that produce various diseases (salmonellosis, cholera, amebiasis or dengue, to mention a few).

Studies conducted by UN-Habitat show that in areas where waste is not frequently collected, the incidence of diarrhea is double, and acute upper respiratory infections are six times higher than in areas where the collection is frequent.

Finally, as we will see in the next chapter, having garbage dumps, instead of efficient waste management systems, implies, in addition to the contamination of entire properties and regions, enormous economic losses due to the waste of materials present in the waste.

Electronic waste

The rapid change in technology around us has an undesirable consequence: the rapid increase in electronic waste. In the United States alone, 25 million televisions, 47 million computers, and 100 million cell phones are thrown away each year.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, between 20 and 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated worldwide each year.

The production and disposal of electronic devices has consequences on both the environment and health, due to the presence of toxic substances and materials such as lead in solder and batteries; mercury in switches, covers and batteries; chrome to coat steel and prevent corrosion; cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors.

Substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated biphenyl ethers are also used as flame retardants in the chassis of screens and monitors. These chemicals are absorbed by various routes and are highly toxic. Electronic waste also contains materials that, when incinerated under improper conditions, can give rise to other poisonous substances, such as dioxins and furans.

If the equipment is disposed of in poorly managed landfills, metals could infiltrate the soil and the resulting contamination would affect subway aquifers, as well as the flora and fauna and the food produced nearby.

The computer infrastructure contains valuable metals such as gold, copper, and platinum. Throwing away computers forces manufacturers to invest energy and resources to find raw material for new products, this includes mining work which, in the case of gold, is highly polluting. Recycling computers allows for the recovery of metals and other materials for reuse.

Divide and conquer: waste management

Waste management and disposal

Reintegrating the waste that we generate into environmental processes and economic chains to value them and benefit both the population and our environment is one of the greatest challenges of our societies, especially in urban concentrations.

Proper waste management, its separation, and subsequent recycling, allows the transformation of waste into resources, reduces the consumption of raw materials and the impact on ecosystems from which we obtain them, in addition to reducing the impact of their disposal.

The economic valuation of post-consumer products, such as containers and packaging, also generates jobs and can boost the emergence of companies and production chains. The separation and subsequent recycling allow to rescue various materials from the waste stream and to condition them for marketing, so that they can be used as raw materials to replace virgin materials.

To classify them, the General Law for the Prevention and Integral Management of Waste has three categories:

Urban Solid Waste (USW) are those generated in homes, establishments or on public roads, either from leftover materials from domestic, commercial or cleaning activities, or which are waste from consumer products and/or their containers, packaging or packing.

Hazardous Waste is that which possesses or has been contaminated with any of these characteristics: corrosiveness, reactivity, explosiveness, toxicity, flammability, or containing infectious agents that may damage health.

Special Handling Wastes are those generated in productive processes that do not meet the characteristics of the two previous ones.

Each type of waste requires different handling. As for the Urban Solid Waste, the route or cycle that follows has five main stages: generation, collection, selection, processing, and final disposal.

In the first stage are the sources of the waste (homes, businesses or industry); in the second, the starting and ending points of the waste flow (collection trucks, transfer stations, recovery islands); in the third stage are all those involved in controlling the waste flow (from the "scavengers" to the technicians and engineers in the composting or recycling plants); In the fourth stage are those stages where it is possible to reuse the materials contained in the waste or, if it is hazardous waste or special handling, its elimination or neutralization; and finally, the final stage, the dumps or sanitary landfills, confinement sites where the waste arrives that, theoretically, have no further use.

Reducing the daily consumption of the latter is very important, because the fact that they are not incorporated into recycling systems means that the materials from which they come are wasted and cannot be reincorporated into the cycles of nature or new use.

In Mexico, the different stages of waste management have different degrees of development, depending on the economic conditions of each region, access to technology, and the interest of different social actors (government, civil society, and businesses) regarding the issue.

This difference is noticeable when observing the figures for collection, disposal, and recycling in Mexico: according to Semarnat, in large metropolises, the coverage in waste collection reaches 95 percent, while in medium-sized cities it varies between 75 and 85 percent and in small urban areas between 60 and 80 percent.

The organization and planning of the solid waste collection service is still rudimentary. The lack of precise data regarding the amount and type of waste generated, the inadequate selection of final disposal sites, the scarce participation of the population in the separation process, the absence of regulations to involve companies in the disposal of the waste they produce, the monopolization of recycling processes by informal leaders, who in turn hire workers without rights or social protection, as well as the lack of technologies and machinery that would facilitate the processes, make reuse and recycling programs inefficient.

As for disposal, it is estimated that 67 percent of the volume generated by Urban Solid Waste in the country arrived at sanitary landfills and controlled sites. This leaves a disturbing 33 percent that is collected, but whose destination is not clear.

Speaking of recycling, although it has been increasing in Mexico, it is still insufficient compared to the size of its economy and the growing levels of consumption of its population. Although it has grown, the fraction of Urban Solid Waste that is recycled in the country is far below other nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as they went from representing just over 0.5 percent in 1991 to 5 percent in 2012, while the average for other OECD members was 24.3 percent, twenty percent higher than the Mexican case.

Recyclable and biodegradable are not synonymous

Recycling is not the same as biodegrading. The first term refers to materials that can be subjected to industrial processes to obtain new products; there are materials that can be recycled a large number of times and that are inert, such as glass, and others that have a limit due to the characteristics of the material, such as plastic bottles.

Biodegradable materials are those that come from plants or animals and can be incorporated into the life cycles of other living organisms. It is very difficult to use only biodegradable materials, but when using recyclable ones, we must always opt for those that at the end of their useful life generate less environmental impact, such as glass and is very important to eradicate apathy and disinterest in these issues, as well as the idea that the problem of waste is only the responsibility of the authorities and let us begin to consider ourselves responsible for the proper management of the waste we produce.

The 3 R's: an old but beautiful idea

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are the actions with which we manage to close the waste cycle, something that benefits the environment but also the economy of a town or country. This is a guide of actions germinated in the environmentalist movement during the 70's of the country's century that, in spite of the time, continues as a simple route to understand and to put in practice by the people and the communities of all parts of the planet.


Waste reduction refers to reducing the amount of waste we produce. To do this, it is very important to reflect on what we consume, observe our current waste and ask ourselves: What is in it, what kind of materials are we throwing away? Can some of these materials be reused, repaired or donated? Can these products be replaced by some without packaging or with packaging that has less environmental impact? Some tips to reduce are:

Think before you buy. Always think about what you need, not what you want.

Share and give away books, magazines and newspapers you have already read.

Buy in bulk, refillable or refillable products, recycled products, or second hand.

Opt for cloth or jute bags to do your shopping at the market or supermarket.

Use aluminum or glass bottles to carry your water.

Borrow tools, instead of buying them.

Repair your appliances such as radios, phones, televisions, toasters, refrigerators, etc., before throwing them away.

Print and use sheets of paper on both sides.

Consider reducing your consumption of toxic waste (household and garden products).


There are products on the market designed to be used more than once (which was much more common until the middle of the last century). This helps reduce waste management costs. Many everyday objects can have more than one use. By reusing a product, we extend its life and stop using new materials and resources.


Recycling means sending discarded materials to industrial processes, in substitution of virgin materials.

For example, in the case of cardboard and newspapers these can be converted into boxes, stationery, tissues, paper towels or napkins. Plastic is used in new products, such as water pipes, carpets, insulation for coats, sleeping bags, bottles and containers. Glass is used primarily to make new glass and fiberglass containers; aluminum is used to make new cans or packaging

Our job as consumers is not to carry out the recycling process, but to separate the waste and make sure that it gets to where it is supposed to go. (By the way, an urban myth is that the garbage is stirred up in the collection trucks, this is not true, since separating the waste generates resources for the cleaning workers, since many of them are not formally hired and the collection and the tips from the users are their main source of income.

Although laws do not provide very clear information for citizens about how we should separate urban solid waste, in general terms the systems that have been developed over the last 30 years in many cities around the world coincide in dividing waste into organic (everything that can be made into compost), recyclable and non-recyclable materials.

The difference between the latter is directly related to the development of local industries capable of transforming and recovering the various materials, for example: in Mexico, there is a very well established industry for recycling paper and cardboard, which in fact, has been forced to import these products due to the low separation and poor quality of the same made by Mexicans.

In contrast, there are no places in the country to deposit burned oil from restaurants and homes, even though the technology exists to process it in small plants and convert it into a useful fuel. Student cafeterias can be found in universities in the United States that have these mini-plants, and in Brazil, there are stations for depositing these oils. "What can I recycle," is a question whose answer depends on the commitment of citizens, companies, and governments in each region and country.

It is very important to eradicate apathy and disinterest in these issues, as well as the idea that the problem of waste is only a matter for the authorities, and let us begin to consider ourselves responsible for the proper management of the waste we produce.

Treasure in the waste

How can we rethink waste? Beyond reducing consumption, reusing, and recycling, it is becoming increasingly clear that one objective is to consider the final destination of products from their design, since the best waste is that which is not produced.

As we have seen, waste has an origin and a destination, this has been called the life cycle. Currently, the aim is to imitate nature in the life cycles of products, which has been called "from cradle to cradle", planning of design and production in which the complete closure of the life cycle of a product from its creation, its use and subsequent treatment as waste is considered.

This system ensures that industry and the environment are not incompatible, but that there is the technological capacity to create opportunities for trade and improve consumption, preserving the environment and including the needs of people. To do this, it considers two main points: the first is to reduce pollution by minimizing the generation of waste during the production of consumer goods, and the second is to avoid the production of objects that cannot be recycled.

In the same way, cities like San Francisco are currently seeking to consolidate "zero waste" systems. A Zero Waste System should approach a cycle, as occurs in nature, and in it two fundamental things happen: the use of resources is redesigned and planned from the generation of a product to its final disposal, to avoid wasteful and contaminating practices during its manufacture; and greater efficiency and effectiveness of the waste management system is achieved, to increase its recovery and derive it to industrial processes in substitution of new materials, thus reducing extraction and contamination, as well as strengthening the local economy.

Some European nations have implemented systems that allow them to generate energy from waste incineration. This is the case in Sweden, which has a strong culture of separation and recycling that, combined with the use of incinerators that allow for the generation of electrical energy through safe and efficient combustion methods, has led to only 4 percent of all its waste ending up in landfills. Its progress is such that it has had to import waste from Norway, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. It is estimated that Sweden imports 80 thousand tons of waste to guarantee its energy supply.

Technological change is fundamental in this trash-waste-zero waste transition. Currently, for example, there is a big push for biodigestion systems that allow energy to be generated from organic waste. Large economies are investing time and money to encourage the use of biodigesters, as is the case in China, which has 5 million (built in the last 30 years), and India, which has 1.6 million (built in the last 25 years).

In European nations, the growth of this technology is so important that approximately 5 percent of the energy produced on the continent comes from biomass. In 2009, the Biodigester Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (RedBIOLAC) was formed, which brings together more than 15 countries on the continent, with the aim of promoting biodigester technology as an alternative for rural development.

Some countries have also implemented regulations to make industries responsible for their products at the end of their useful life, which has led to changes in the type of materials they use, in order to make collection and recycling processes simpler. Finally, nations such as France have banned "programmed obsolescence" practices, that is, launching products on the market that intentionally last less time or must be replaced by new versions, regardless of whether previous versions are functional. Example: the change in the inputs of cell phone chargers.


Given the complexity of the landscape we face in socio-environmental issues, it is important to understand the scope of our actions and responsibilities, since the solution (or rather, the implementation of a set of possible solutions and alternatives) requires joint and coordinated action by all actors involved, in the medium and long term.

An initial condition is to understand the scope and limits of what we can do at the individual and community level, since there are various ways to participate and contribute to the solution of problems.

On an individual level, each act of consumption that we carry out on a daily basis has certain impacts on the environment, so analyzing the options offered by the market in a critical way -or not- has immediate and long-term consequences on our quality of life and on the ecosystems on which we depend.

That is why it is important to always keep in mind, as a basic principle, responsible consumption, which implies rethinking the definitions of need and desire. Changing our consumption patterns requires understanding the value of services and consumer goods, knowing the systems and processes that lead to the production and sale of products, being aware of the impact that our lifestyles have on the world we live in and, finally, developing skills that help us become informed, thoughtful and responsible citizens.

It is important to understand that as consumers and citizens we have shared but differentiated responsibilities. This implies that there are decisions that we individually do not have the capacity to make directly, but which we can influence.

In many cases, major transformations are driven by the strength of citizen actions, and in our hands is the possibility of influencing the direction taken by companies, governments and their institutions, promoting a more positive relationship with ecosystems and other human communities, such as peasant and small producer communities. These changes will significantly modify the production of waste in our homes and communities.

Beyond consumption, it is also necessary to change industrial promotion policies and legislation related to the regulation of environmental impacts in the manufacture of goods, so that from the design of products, their packaging, the marketing that surrounds them, their sale and subsequent disposal, tends to minimize the impact on the environment and encourage practices of fair trade, exchange and benefit for local communities.

The adequate management of waste is one of the great environmental challenges for our civilization in general and for our country in particular. The fact that we manage to leave a planet with crystalline waters, clean seas and waste that is no longer considered garbage, depends on each one of us doing our part to generate a change in mentality, habits and values.