The responsibility for our waste does not end with throwing it in a bag

Each resident of Mexico generates approximately 994 grams of garbage per day. Cleanup workers collect 1,860 tons daily, similar to the weight of 676 hippopotamuses, according to the Mexico City Solid Waste Inventory 2019.

The responsibility for our waste does not end with throwing it in a bag
When we put our garbage in a bag for disposal, our duty for it does not cease. Images and text: UNAM

Mexico City's 7,603 street sweepers and their 385 assistants, 80 volunteers, and 528 supervisors travel the equivalent of one lap around the earth every three days, which means walking 40,075 kilometers. They cover 15,156 kilometers per day, or one-third of one lap around our planet, and collect approximately 1,860 tons of waste, which is equivalent to the weight of 676 hippopotamuses, the second heaviest land animals; an adult male weighs 2,750 kilograms on average, according to the Mexico City Solid Waste Inventory 2019.

The women and men in charge of cleaning historic centers, main avenues, public parks and other urban spaces in this and other cities perform a crucial task so that waste has better disposal and does not end up saturating the sewers or in places where the environment is damaged by polluting bodies of water, soil and air.

This is what Nancy Merary Jiménez Martínez, an academic at UNAM's Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research (CRIM) and specialist in Integral Waste Management, says. On the occasion of the Day of the Street Sweeper, which is commemorated on August 8, she calls on us to revalue their work and to be aware of the responsibility we have with our waste so that they have safe final disposal.

"It's very important to recognize that waste doesn't disappear when I put it out. The truck drives by and takes my garbage bag with it. The visible face of the urban waste management systems is these men and women, the sweepers, but also those who work in the collection trucks, treatment plants, and final disposal sites. "This date should help us to see what we sometimes don't want to see, that we believe our responsibility with waste ends when we throw it in a bag," she says.

Sweepers also collect garbage from homes and businesses located on the streets and avenues they clean, a job for which they often receive precarious wages.

"In large cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, formal workers, who belong to the mayor's offices or municipalities, have converged with an important informal sector called assistants or volunteers, who most probably are not part of the payroll and only receive tips," she explains. Their income is for survival, and although they collect materials that can be used, they do not obtain a considerable volume that allows them to negotiate good prices for them.

The responsibility for our garbage does not cease when we put it in a bag.
The responsibility for our garbage does not cease when we put it in a bag.

Responsibility for our garbage

In the last three decades, waste generation in Mexico has been increasing; it is estimated that each inhabitant produces approximately 994 grams per day. In general, 120,128 tons of waste are generated daily in the country, according to the Basic Diagnosis for the Integral Management of Waste of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.

"We believe that we send our waste to a remote place so that it does not bother us, but later it comes back to us, through the water we drink or the food we consume, because there is little use and poor disposal of these," she stresses.

For example, in the northwest—Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, and Sonora—it is 1,083 kilograms per inhabitant; in the center—Mexico City, State of Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala—it is 766 grams. While in the southeast—Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Yucatan—it is 867 grams per inhabitant.

It is urgent to reduce the amount of waste we generate and not abandon this objective by justifying the use of biodegradable bags, corn starch, or avocado, among others.

Let's not go with that. The most important thing is to reduce waste generation. If you cannot reduce them, avoid buying a product, use it as much as possible; and when it can no longer be used for the purpose for which it was designed, try to find another use for it. "If you can neither reduce nor reuse it, at least make sure that its final disposal is safe, that it goes to appropriate places," she says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that many cleaning workers work informally and lack personal protective equipment for their work. The World Health Organization called attention to the importance of this public service, essential to facing a pandemic of this magnitude.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization stressed the need to consider the deficiencies and neglected aspects of the flow of waste produced in health systems, which put pressure on collection procedures and pose a risk to environmental and human health.

Our duty for garbage does not cease when we put it in a bag.
Our duty for garbage does not cease when we put it in a bag.

Urban trade

The CRIM researcher considers it important to remember that street sweepers have been part of the city trades since ancient times.

"The friars documented very well in their chronicles of New Spain how, upon the arrival of Hernán Cortés, the emperor Moctezuma took a special interest in the cleanliness of Tenochtitlan since an army of about a thousand men swept and watered the city daily before dawn, to the point that the ground was so clean and settled that wherever the emperor stood, the soles of his feet had to be as clean as the palm of his hand, which shows the importance of urban cleanliness," she recounts.