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Lessons Learned From Mexico City’s Ban On Single-Use Plastic Bags

MEXICO CITY — In the global environmentalist battle, Mexico City started fighting single-use plastic bags this year. But the impact and results from the ban still are debated by citizens, business people and nature preservationists.

Starting this year, Mexico City implemented a change in their waste management law, and now single-use plastic bags are banned. How this environmentalist move is affecting one of the largest cities in the world — and what can we learn from it?

Bagless Stores

Jessica López works in a Mexico City convenience store, one out of thousands of stores that are not allowed to use one-time plastic bags for customer purchases since January.

The Mexico City Congress approved last year a reform to the waste management law.

Starting this year, bans the use of carrier plastic bags in stores, except those used for fresh food to prevent health problems. Next year, the ban is expected to extend to other single-use products.

López says most customers have adapted to the measure but some still complain, like those who even wanted a bag for just a pack of cigarettes. 

"Selling bags is not a good alternative for us: it’s not profitable and not good for the environment," López said.

And despite some customers buy less after forgetting to bring a bag, the majority carry reusable bags or even cones made out of newspaper.

"The ban might be helpful, but there’s many other polluting materials that should be banned or at least regulated to make a real difference," the storekeeper said.

'Molding' The Industry

José del Cueto is president of the plastic bag division of the Mexican Association of Plastics. And, in a way, he agrees with López.

“This prohibition to specific products is not going to help. So, we need to try to improve the way we handle trash,” Del Cueto said, explaining that the reform is insufficient without a modification to the waste management processes and regulations.

Del Cueto says the industry already lost $81 million in the first two months of the year. 

The executive said 95% of plastic bags in Mexico are made locally. There are more than 4,300 plastic bag companies in Mexico, generating 300,000 jobs. 

But Del Cueto says factories are closing, firing people or struggling for resources to produce the newly required environmentally friendly bags.

“Plastic bags need to be made with compostable materials. Not reusable, not recyclable. Basically compostable. And that means we need to import, so we need to bring from China or Asia or Europe,” Del Cueto said.

The businessman said the industry is committed to reducing pollution, but it needs the government's help and commitment. He says some substitute materials used for supermarket bags, like cotton or paper, may be worse than plastics.

More Than A Ban

"I think the industry has created a false dilemma,” said Ornela Garelli, ocean's campaigner and one of the leaders in the campaigns to reduce plastic consumption for the environmentalist nonprofit Greenpeace Mexico.

And for her, it is possible to protect the economy and the environment simultaneously through innovation and changing the culture.

“The point here is to reuse the bag. It’s time to do something, and way to start is to supporting these kind of bans, Garelli said.”

Garelli said that although plastic bags represent less than 1% of the trash, their importance goes beyond.

“It’s not just the ban for itself, it is a change in our culture. We want the people to start seeing that our actions have an impact on the environment,” she explained.

Garelli says everything we produce has an environmental impact, from paper to plastic or cotton bags. And the point of these kinds of bans is not to eradicate plastics — some of which are beneficial — but to limit single-use materials as much as possible.

"We consider that recycling is good, but it's not the solution, because in the reality, we can see that we don't have enough technical capacity,” the environmentalist said.

Garelli says only 9% of the plastic produced globally gets recycled. This drops to 6% in Mexico and the U.S. 

Dealing With The Bags

On a Mexico City street, Arnulfo Acevedo and his co-workers pick up the trash, transporting 16 tons of it everyday.

"Some people complain about the ban because the alternative now is finding other containers for trash," Acevedo said. 

He’s been collecting garbage for 44 years and says changes in waste management can be hard for many, but it’s necessary for the environment.

"Everything is possible here in Mexico. But to make things happen, people need to cooperate," Acevedo said.

Rodrigo Cervantes is KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City, where he was born and raised. He has served as opinion writer, contributor and commentator for several media outlets and organizations in Mexico and the United States, including CNN, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Univisión. Cervantes previously worked as the business editor and editorial coordinator for El Norte, the leading newspaper in Monterrey and a publication of Grupo Reforma, Mexico’s premier news group. In Mexico City, Cervantes served in Reforma as a reporter, special correspondent, editor and special sections coordinator. Cervantes also held the editor position at MundoHispánico, a division of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia’s oldest and largest Latino newspaper. He also participated as one of the first members of the Diversity Advisory Group for Cox Media. In 2012, Cervantes was appointed as fellow for the Leadership Program of The New York Times/Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, as well as for the "Líderes Digitales" program from the International Center for Journalists. In 2010, he was awarded with the Poynter-McCormick Leadership Fellowship. Cervantes graduated with honors in communication sciences and journalism from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), Mexico City Campus. Later, he was granted the Fundación Carolina Scholarship from the Spanish government to obtain an MBA degree at San Pablo-CEU School of Business (Madrid). Other awards include: the Power 30 Under 30 Award for Professional and Community Excellence in Atlanta, the Outstanding Alumni Medal from ITESM, and several José Martí Awards for Journalism Excellence from the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP). Cervantes enjoys music, books, travel, friendship, good mezcal and the occasional company of his guitar.