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Pollution Crisis in Mexico Shows Limits of Plastic Bag Bans Amid Global Capitalism

Mexican states like Puebla have banned plastic bags, but waste is overflowing due to exempt transnational companies.

People during the collection and separation of waste that arrives daily at the largest garbage dump in Mexico Bordo de Xochiaca, on August 31, 2021, in Mexico City, Mexico.

The corner shop near where I live in Puebla, Mexico, keeps its plastic bags hidden under the counter. Cashiers only bring them out when someone asks, as though they were contraband. And in a way, they are, as plastic bags have been banned for a few years now.

Bans on single-use plastic bags came into effect in 29 of Mexico’s 32 states between 2018 and 2021. But in Puebla, where plastic bags have been banned since 2020, 12 to 13 tons of plastic bags are collected daily, and in 2022, investment in the plastics industry increased by 32 percent. Nationally, the country’s plastics production has grown at an average 5.27 percent since 2018. E-commerce isn’t included in the bans, and in Mexico City alone, companies like Amazon and Mercado Libre generated 86,000 tons of plastic waste in 2021.

With rubbish dumps overflowing and municipal governments deepening other landfills to the distress of locals, it is clear the bans have had little impact. Farmlands are littered with plastic, and rubbish blocks city drains, leading to flooding.

Thin plastics are quickly entering Mexico’s environment because they break down faster into microplastics, Alethia Vázquez, an urban waste expert and plastics researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University-Azcapotzalco, told Truthout.

Mexico’s lack of infrastructure means that lighter plastics blow around, “are easily transported by rain and wind,” and as microplastics, are then harder to remove, and then they enter food chains, she said.

Due to this, many of Mexico’s rivers, mangroves and beaches are becoming de facto rubbish dumps, and 60 percent of the waste on Mexico’s beaches is plastic. Rubbish dumps catch fire, with one recently in Tlaxcala state burning for four days and emitting toxic substances like dioxins. Locals there have filed a lawsuit to close the dump.

Selene Agustin is an environmental activist who runs a permaculture project near Puebla’s Valsequillo Lake. We visited the lake together, noticing how the plastics brought there from a main river were even visible on the other side, speckling the land. “Farmers here are planting corn amid all the plastic rubbish,” she said, explaining that the lake is a Ramsar site — meaning important for biological diversity – it is a refuge for birds, but those birds are consuming the microplastics.

Consumers, Not Corporations, Are Shouldered With the Burden

Oaxaca state tried to go beyond plastic bags and prohibit all single-use plastics and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — a clear plastic used for bottles, jars and other packaging in 2022. But Coca-Cola, through its companies Oxxo and Propimex, challenged the law and won.

“The plastics industry dictates” what happens, Nick Leopold, environmental scientist and coordinator of Oceana Mexico and its Oceans Without Plastics campaign, told Truthout. The plastics industry in Mexico is made up of over 5,000 companies and impacting 80 percent of production activities, including packaging, general consumption, construction, cars and electronics.

Plastic rubbish by Valsequillo Lake in Puebla.
Plastic rubbish by Valsequillo Lake in Puebla.

“The reason why single-use plastics are used is simply because they are more profitable, not because there aren’t better alternatives out there,” he added.

The beverage industry went from returned and refilled glass bottles to plastic ones, so they can change if they want, he argued. “These industries use plastics in excessive amounts, and often for needs that they have manufactured.”

Meanwhile, it is often the biggest plastics polluters who promote recycling to greenwash their responsibility on to consumers, in a similar way to the plastic bag bans and making consumers buy bags. The biggest PET recycling plant in Mexico, called PetStar, is linked to Coca-Cola — the top plastic polluter globally.

Companies will only use alternatives to plastics when “it is obligatory or there is a competitive advantage in terms of cost or in terms of brand image,” said Vázquez.

U.S. and IMF-Manufactured Dependence on Plastics

Mexicans haven’t always bought plastic-wrapped products from supermarkets. Traditionally, Mexicans buy food in tianguis or open-air street markets, where groceries including grains, rice, fish, and more are bought by weight rather than in branded packaging.

You can take your jug to the market to get it filled with juice, rather than buy packaged juice, and buy eggs and grains by the kilo in grocery stores. But supermarkets like Walmart are infringing on these customs, and “every time there has been an attempt to do something to curb these issues, the plastics industry launches very strong campaigns, invests a lot of money and effort into pushing back,” said Leopold. The first Walmart arrived in the country in 1962, around the same time that plastics began to be mass produced.

An abarotes (groceries) store, where products are sold by the kilo.
An abarotes (groceries) store, where products are sold by the kilo.

Rubbish in Mexico used to be minimal and largely biodegradable, but it increased massively when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed with the U.S. and Canada in 1992, researcher Juanita Ochoa Chi told La Jornada del Oriente.

NAFTA and IMF-imposed neoliberalism (from 1983), led to poverty, privatization, deregulation and extreme consumerism in Mexico, as well as the destruction of traditional dietary habits and the replacement of them with a junk food culture, argued Mexican sociologist Asa Cristina Laurell.

“Incessant accumulation tied to the use of fossil fuels has normalized certain lifestyle expectations, and now plastics are everywhere … there is an impressive production and distribution chain of plastics. Plastics are in clothes, shoes, food containers, packaging. Banning plastic bags barely touches the industry,” said Agustin.

The Poor Endure the Rubbish of the Rich

The UN has talked about the “beginning of the end of plastics pollution” in the leadup to its binding global agreement. In 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution on plastics pollution, which included identifying the problem, stressing the importance of sustainably designed products, and convening an intergovernmental negotiating committee to come up with a binding agreement by the end of this year. Given this, it is important to consider which entities and countries are producing plastic and who is being impacted by it.

While the Mexican government estimates that each person consumes an average of 66 kilograms of plastic per year, the average person in the U.S. consumes 221 kilograms. Further, over half of single-use plastic waste globally can be traced back to just 20 petrochemical companies.

Selene Agustin, permaculture activist.
Selene Agustin, permaculture activist.

“A few people are producing most of the environmental crisis and we, the majority, are suffering,” said Agustin. “So who needs to have their awareness raised? I would say these people who are causing all the damage. But these [plastic bag] bans are aimed more at us, the majority.”

But for the U.S. government, Mexico is a “best prospect for U.S. exporters” of plastics. The U.S. has a major plastics recycling plant in Mexico, run by Direct Pack Recycling. Greenpeace describes this as an example of “plastic garbage colonialism,” as the plant sends its plastic pellets and packaging back to the U.S., while consuming huge amounts of Mexico’s water (197 million liters annually) in a region prone to droughts.

Mexico is Latin America’s largest importer of the U.S.’s plastic. Shipments from the U.S. to Mexico doubled between 2019 to 2021 to 167,548 tons. There is a lack of transparency regarding what happens to that rubbish, but Leopold said Mexico already had enough of its own plastic waste that it didn’t recycle, so it is unlikely most of those imports are recycled.

Sending plastic rubbish to Mexico “under the guise of recycling” only perpetuates “environmental injustice,” Larisa de Orbe, a coordinator of environmental academics, told Greenpeace Mexico.

Street vendors sell plastics in a street in the historic center of Puebla.
Street vendors sell plastics in a street in the historic center of Puebla.

“Why should countries in the Global South have to handle this rubbish that was created in the Global North?” asked Leopold. He noted that the inequality extends to the plastics factories, which tend to be located in poorer areas and have negative health impacts. “In these poorer areas, these communities have less protection against these big industries, and there’s no money for monitoring them, to ensure they are emitting [pollution] correctly … so they are contaminating the environment and affecting locals,” he said.

Recently, multinational corporations headquartered in the U.S. have used the “new NAFTA” (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA) to stop Canada from banning certain single-use plastics, arguing the measure amounts to a “non-tariff barrier.” Similarly, business interests cited USMCA provisions to challenge Mexico’s law requiring junk food label warnings, and in general U.S. businesses can use the agreement any time Mexico’s regulations or legislation affects their business operations.

More Money Is Spent on Corporate Waste Than Human Rights

Further, Global South countries like Mexico have fewer resources to manage waste and to enforce any bans on plastics. The U.S.’s annual federal budget ($6.9 trillion), for example, is around 13 times Mexico’s (9.07 trillion pesos or $531 billion), despite having roughly double the population.

Waste management “requires technology and a budget,” said Vázquez. “In Mexico, waste is managed at a municipal level, and many of the 2,500 municipalities in the country, especially those that are smaller or in remote rural areas, literally don’t have the means to do so.” Some 17 percent of Mexico doesn’t have any waste collection, and these regions end up burning their waste or dumping it in rivers and valleys.

Puebla may have a plastic bag ban, but between 2020 to 2022, it did not have the means to issue a single fine for plastic bag use. Mexico City, a wealthier area, did shut down 14 shops temporarily for violating its ban between January 2022 and August 2023, and one Sam’s Club was shut down permanently for repeated violations. Mexico City authorities also claim they have issued 70,000 fines to businesses.

The waste dump in Atlixco, Puebla, sits right in front of the Popocatepetl volcano. Largely uncontrolled, with no sorting, and with a single security guard at the entrance, it is a health and environmental hazard.
The waste dump in Atlixco, Puebla, sits right in front of the Popocatepetl volcano. Largely uncontrolled, with no sorting, and with a single security guard at the entrance, it is a health and environmental hazard.
The waste dump in Atlixco, Puebla, sits right in front of the Popocatepetl volcano. Largely uncontrolled, with no sorting, and with a single security guard at the entrance, it is a health and environmental hazard.

But, despite a lack of resources to enforce bans, Mexico still spends more on collecting and managing rubbish produced by corporations than on urgent human rights needs. In 2021, Mexico City spent 53 million pesos on managing e-commerce waste — more than it spent on the Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination (26 million pesos) or to protect cyclists and pedestrians (9 million pesos).

“Plastic packaging is cheaper for companies, but tax money is used to manage the rubbish generated, so in the end, society is paying,” said Leopold.

Further, much of Mexico’s huge informal sector depends on selling street food or items like cheap plastic toys, and the transition to biodegradable food trays or bags would cost vendors to spend up to 25 times more. Vázquez noted that just taxing or implementing registration systems was difficult in the informal sector, so “there’s even less control over the plastics they use.”

Going Forward

While Leopold’s Oceana Mexico has campaigned in the streets and at universities, conducting surveys and collecting petition signatures, the organization has found that the majority of people in Mexico City are both aware and critical of plastics contamination. Some 97 percent of people surveyed across the city’s 16 boroughs declared they want e-commerce plastics to be regulated. According to another survey by P-Studios, 84 percent of people in Mexico City think solving the plastics problem should be part of candidates’ proposals as the June national elections approach.

For Vázquez, the solution involves both legal obligations and tax incentives. But she stresses, “When things are banned, that doesn’t mean the need for the product has gone … so bans have to be accompanied with reflections on how to meet the need.”

“Producers (of plastics) have to be held responsible, and as the Global North has greater liability, it has to contribute to the solutions proportionately,” said Leopold.

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