Turtles and Ditches

February 1, 2020

Vendors in the market in town are trying to cut down on plastic bags. It’s causing some problems.

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A marketplace fruit stand in Tepoztlan market exhorting customers not to require plastic bags.

I always have mixed feelings on this topic, since I spent three decades of my life working for trade magazines covering packaging and plastics. Paper as a substitute for plastics uses more energy to produce, and we chop down a lot of trees to produce it, even when some recycled fibre is employed. There’s also a lot of toxic waste from paper production that you don’t get with plastics; paper usually ends up being more expensive because of the high energy demands it has.

On the other hand, you never see photos of turtles unable to eat because they’re trapped inside floating paper bags. Paper breaks down in weeks or months, where plastics can require decades. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used for most pop and water bottles, uses polymers of such a high molecular weight that there’s no known micro-organism that can break them down. Only UV light from the Sun, the salt in seawater, and the passage of time will do that.

I often used to wonder, writing about ever more efficient machinery for producing plastic film or PET bottles, what was to happen to the production after use. There was a lot of talk about recycling – I served on committees concerned with it, and wrote earnest editorials about biodegradable additives and similar approaches. But while the issue’s easy to preach about, it’s difficult to resolve in practice. A safe food supply requires reliable packaging, and people who preach about reusable plastic containers that you wash out at home usually have little idea what nasty bacterial colonies lurk in their tubs’ and bottles’ water-retaining micro-cracks. Glass breaks into dangerous fragments (my mother’s leg was scarred by a bottle that burst on her), and it needs far more energy to produce and to transport than plastics … and so it goes. Move from forthright slogans to nitty-gritty practicalities, and you’re into a swamp of aggravating fine detail. Municipal politicians, the people who usually have to implement the solutions, learn to hate the entire topic of waste disposal with a scornful despair.

The simplest action we can all perform is the one that many Mexicans apparently find hard to implement: don’t litter. Littering, though, is among the world’s most chronic pollution issues. I’ve mentioned here before people’s tendency to throw empty pop bottles and chip bags into a roadside ditch. When the rains come, these things find their way into streams, then rivers … and on to the turtles, or other sea creatures. But throwing something aside is a macho thing, a disdainful gesture, and it’s hard to eradicate from this society. There are slogans, lectures given in school, signs asking people not to do it – and little changes.

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Shredded bags, a foam cup, a milk container and other trash in the roadway near my home.

The bags they give out in the market when I buy vegetables or nuts are minor priorities, since they’re used and disposed of in the kitchen. It’s easy to capture a domestic waste-stream, far more so than the snack-food bags teenagers toss aside on the way home. And Mexican kids consume an enormous amount of chips. Even the ones who prefer a cup of fruit sticks on the way home still have a plastic cup to get rid of afterwards, and I see many of them in the ditches on my walks.

But the market vendors are visible dispensers of plastics, and so are a visible target. Also, some of them care enough to try to eliminate what they see as a problem. Most now charge me a peso or two for a plastic shopping bag when I forget to bring one, and work to cut down their small bag usage.

A couple of stalls now refuse to issue any kind of bag (which is impractical with larger quantities), while one family selling grains and dried fruit tried paper cones. These they were folding on their own, and anchoring with scotch tape. I imagine their packaging costs tripled (and they have a popular stall), and they ran into problems estimating the size of cone they needed. Last week, what would have been a small plastic bag of raisins – 200 grams – needed two of their cones. I noticed two days ago they’d switched back to small, clear bags.

Some of the plastic waste in the oceans is post-industrial, though not many manufacturers are daft enough to waste raw materials. Some is from sloppy recycling operations or regular garbage collection, which is a problem here: the Wednesday garbage truck is usually loaded past its capacity by the time it heads home, and some trash falls out.

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PET bottles and other trash in a ditch near where I live. The rains will wash them into the river.

But the littering is the worst thing, since there’s little desire to prevent the problem. My next door neighbours, generally friendly people, have a garbage system that their dogs get into, so that the front of their house is always strewn with old yogurt cups or water bottles. I could ask them to be more careful, but I doubt they’d take the request amiably. I’m not the lifelong resident here, after all.

The only thing to hope for is that educators find ways to penetrate the culture of tossing disposables beside the road. I’m told, in times past, the only waste was food waste, which animals would soon take, or things like ceramic bowls or flasks, which remained inert. Perhaps such old habits underlie the issue. Until they’re fixed, though – and in scores of places, not just Mexico – the seas will continue to receive far too much plastic garbage.

Sexy New Garbage Cans

“Has anything happened while I was away?” I asked Mauricio. I’d had less than three hours sleep on an overnight flight, and really wasn’t interested in much beyond getting a caffeine hit before I fell asleep (and I do mean fell) in Buenos Tiempos cafe. But it was a simple question to keep a conversation going.

“It’s Tepoztlan,” he replied. “Nothing happens here.”

Ah, how wrong he was. We have smart new garbage cans all over the centre of the town!

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Our sexy new black-and-white garbage bins.

Garbage has been a fascination of mine for years, since, as editor of a magazine for the plastics industry, I became involved in recycling initiatives and efforts to reduce solid waste. Not that I think it did much good, because people want either to ban packaging they dislike (which is about all of it), or refuse to believe that recapturing waste streams is complicated and costly.

A frequent question was, “Couldn’t we just use one type of plastic for everything?” Don’t you think that if we could, we would have done?

But if your fish is off, or your cheese looks mouldy, your high-mindedness disappears in 2.5 milliseconds. Packaging must first be designed to protect the food, before it’s designed for reprocessing.

In many countries, people don’t always grasp the connection between tossing a pop bottle or a chip bag into a ditch, and what ends up in the ocean. This attitude is shifting only slowly. The sight of garbage lying in a barranca, waiting for heavy rains to wash it into a stream, has always saddened me in this country, because it’s so common. There is a recycling truck that comes by my house every Wednesday, and the zocalo in the centre of town has a special rack for recyclable waste, but that’s been abandoned for years.

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The fading signage says vidrio (glass), papel (paper) and metal. But no-one services this thing.

So, new garbage bins, with clear black and white lettering, got me excited. I don’t know what provision has been made for regular collection and maintenance, and they aren’t that huge, but they made my day.

Persuading people to sort their garbage for re-use is tough – I once nearly got in a fist-fight with a Toronto construction worker who was dumping fluorescent light-tubes in with glass bottles; the two types of glass are non-miscible (won’t mix), and if the batch gets contaminated, it’s all thrown out, because sorting the different items and fragments would cost a fortune. But with a basic garbage can, at least the waste is caught before it finds its way to a gutter, or one of the small streams that run down through town.

Tepoztlan gets thousands of visitors on most weekends, so they generate a lot of garbage. I realise the bins are very non-traditional-looking, and few other people will appreciate my enthusiasm. But they made my day, and while Mauricio doesn’t share my excitement, he at least gets my point.