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[greenyes] FW: SFGate: Mexico's PET peeve/Avalanche of plastic bottles is a national environmental curse





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This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SFGate.
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/02/17/BUGRI51VNU1.D
TL
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Tuesday, February 17, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
Mexico's PET peeve/Avalanche of plastic bottles is a national environmental
curse
Sam Quinones, Chronicle Foreign Service


Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico -- For 15 years, Guillermo Padilla has picked
through the trash at the same acre patch of a garbage dump in this
working-class suburb of Mexico City, collecting what he can sell.
He'll collect paper, glass and cardboard. But he sometimes balks at PET
plastic, the thin substance from which soda and water bottles are made.
There is no end to these bottles, but the price Padilla gets for them
fluctuates wildly.
"You don't collect it as much when the price for it is low," he says.
This is why bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate -- PET -- have
become a national environmental curse.
Plastic industry officials here say Mexico has come to use more PET per
capita than any other country: roughly 460,000 tons a year -- 55,000 tons
in Mexico City alone.
PET plastic is eminently recyclable, and its fiber is used to produce
carpets, shirts, sweaters and other products. But only an estimated 30,000
tons of what Mexico uses annually is recycled. Consumers aren't accustomed
to recycling the bottles, and the prices for recycled PET varies greatly.
The rest takes up space in landfills or is strewn about the country,
clogging storm drains and causing flooding, providing incubators for
mosquitoes and other pests and, in general, creating a disgusting mess.
California faces a similar problem as the bottles' popularity has grown.
Last year, 3 million PET bottles a day were being buried in state
landfills and not recycled, according to a report by the California
Department of Conservation. Only 16 percent of PET bottles used in
California are recycled, according to the report.
On January 1, a new state law, aimed at boosting recycling, increased
redemption values for all containers under 24 ounces to 4 cents and to 8
cents for those 24 ounces and above.
In Mexico, the plastics, bottling and soda industries have combined to
try
to combat the problem, in what is believed to be the first time an
industry has taken national responsibility for the waste its product
creates.
They have put up $20 million to form a company -- known as ECOCE -- to
buy
used PET bottles across the country. The company now has a fleet of
collection trucks and centers in 12 cities around the country.
Workers at these centers sort the stuff and bale it for sale to recycling
plants, either in Mexico or abroad. A center in Tijuana, just across the
California border, was inaugurated on Jan. 19.
The company's real innovation, however, is to set a minimum price of 1
peso -- about 10 cents -- per kilogram of PET.
In the past, when prices for recycled PET rose, recyclers would build
plants and infrastructure. When prices dropped, supplies would dwindle and
the recyclers would fail.
"At first, we thought that the problem could be solved by creating
recycling companies," said Jaime Camara, who manages the ECOCE warehouse
in Mexico City. "Then we realized that we had to first create that crucial
link, which is the collection and storage."
Setting a minimum price for recycled PET, industry officials hope, will
convince people to recycle enough of the plastic to provide a stable
supply to recyclers. With a stable supply of the material, the theory
goes, companies would be more willing to invest in PET recycling plants.
So far, ECOCE collects more than 4,000 tons of used PET per month. In
August, the company joined Coca-Cola de Mexico to announce plans to invest
$20 million in a plant to recycle 25,000 tons of PET a year. When it opens
in 2005, the plant will be the first in Latin America to turn used PET
bottles into new PET bottles. Now, most recycling plants grind PET up into
fibers for use in carpeting and other consumer items.
ECOCE is a sign of how Mexico is changing. "Before, we just didn't have
that culture of taking responsibility," said Sergio Gasca, project
director for Mexico City's Environment Ministry, which first urged the PET
industry to address its waste problem three years ago, leading to the
formation of the recycling company. "This is what we're trying to promote
now: that each industry be responsible for its own waste."
Similar plans are under discussion with members of the tire, battery and
ink-cartridge industries, Gasca said. Opening this month in Mexico City is
the country's first plant that will recycle building debris, financed by
construction-industry investors.
Yet ECOCE's experiment also illustrates the uniquely Mexican obstacles to
cleaning the country's ravaged environment.
One of these involves garbage pickers such Padilla and their unions,
which
grew strong as pillars of political support for the Institutional
Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled the country for 71 years until
2000. Garbage pickers amount to a virtual caste in Mexico, living their
lives at dumps, picking through each load of garbage for material of
value. They are how anything gets recycled in large volume in Mexico.
For ECOCE to be successful, it must first convince these pickers to
collect PET.
"Before, garbage pickers didn't know who would buy it from them if they
collected it," said Jorge Trevino, ECOCE's president. "There was no
certainty. That's what we're offering them. Now, we say, 'You separate it
and we'll buy it all from you.' We think they'll collect the material
permanently and will increase their volumes."
But even that is not enough. Though the PRI is out of power, the leaders
of garbage-picker unions remain strong. They control the pickers,
primarily by deciding who can work where in each dump.
So ECOCE must also please these leaders. At the dump where Padilla works,
ECOCE first paid each picker for the plastic he collected. The leader of
the union at the dump began to bar entrance to ECOCE trucks. Bowing to
necessity, ECOCE now pays the union leader for the plastic. He pockets
half that and gives the rest to the pickers who have collected the
material.
Moreover, ECOCE executives say they will fail if they cannot change
consumers' long-standing antipathy toward separating PET bottles in their
trash. A large part of ECOCE's budget has gone to a publicity campaign and
school recycling programs to train people to recycle PET.
"We believe that the responsibility (for waste management) doesn't lie
only with one sector of society," Trevino said. "Consumers have to share
that
responsibility." -----------------------------------------------------------
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Copyright 2004 SF Chronicle





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