As plastic piles up in Mexico, waste pickers bear the burden

Rising waste imports from the developed world bring risks for informal recycling workers, who are looking to a UN treaty for help
<p>Workers arriving at the Xochiaca garbage dump in Mexico city, the largest in Mexico (Image: Aidee Martinez / Alamy)</p>

Workers arriving at the Xochiaca garbage dump in Mexico city, the largest in Mexico (Image: Aidee Martinez / Alamy)

It’s a hot afternoon in Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous borough. Under the baking sun, Enriqueta Loreto is separating recyclables from waste. Every day, she goes door to door, collecting people’s waste in the hope of finding objects she can resell.

“Nobody protects us,” said Loreto, who carries out her work as a waste picker informally, without a contract or social protection. “The government does not recognise us, nor the waste workers’ union. We have no protection.” Over 9,000 kilometres away from Iztapalapa, representatives from more than 170 nations recently came together in Paris to deliberate on an agreement that will have a significant bearing on the future of global plastic use – and on waste pickers like Loreto. The United Nations’ planned global treaty to end plastic pollution will aim to confront the world’s rising tide of plastic waste, but must overcome a number of complex international problems.

Among the most pressing points of negotiation, as countries look to draft an agreement by the end of 2023, are decisions on whether certain plastics should be banned, how waste management should be improved and, critically, how to deal with what has been dubbed “waste colonialism” – a practice that sees the developed world’s waste exported to poorer countries in the global south with less stringent environmental regulations and labour rights. 

There is an urgent need to regulate the global plastics industry: over the past 20 years, annual plastics production has more than doubled to 460 million tonnes, roughly half of which is for single-use or short-lived products. However, only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, with 12% ending up in incinerators. The vast majority is dumped in landfill or leaks into the environment, where it can take hundreds of years to degrade.

Plastics also exacerbate global heating, amassing a significant carbon footprint throughout their lifecycle: in 2019, plastics accounted for 3.4% of global greenhouse emissions. If drastic changes are not made, plastic waste is on track to triple within four decades.

“Plastic pollution is a ticking time bomb, as well as a plague that has already commenced,” French president Emmanuel Macron said in a video message to the delegates at the Paris negotiations. “The world’s eyes are on us.”

Over the past few years, landmark legislation has been passed in several countries seeking to reduce plastic waste. China was previously one of the world’s largest importers of waste but it banned imports in 2018. This led to surges in imports elsewhere as developed countries looked for new destinations. It also generated discussion over the health and environmental impacts of the practice and further bans. Meanwhile, the European Parliament backed a plan in January to restrict exports of waste beyond its borders, opening the door to regulations that may reduce the bloc’s role in offloading the burden of recycling to the developing world.

While efforts to confront plastic waste are advancing in some parts of the world, pollution is worsening in others. This is the case in Mexico, Latin America’s biggest importer of plastic. A recent investigation found that over the past two years, Mexico has doubled its imports from the United States alone. And informal workers – exposed to toxic chemicals and precarious working conditions – are paying the price.

Plastic pollution in Mexico

Mexico has long imported plastic waste, but shipments have skyrocketed since China’s ban as the US and other countries scrambled to export their waste elsewhere.

A waste pickers carries a giant bag of waste on his shoulder walking into a recycling plant in Mexico
Solid waste recycling plant in Xalapa, Veracruz state, Mexico. The plant processes hundreds of kilos of plastic every day. (Image: Hector Adolfo Quintanar Perez / Alamy)

The Mexican government has been ill-equipped to manage this new influx. The Plastics Management Index by the Back to Blue Initiative, an oceans campaign platform, found that a lack of systemic capacity and governance shortcomings make Mexico one of the countries least prepared to address plastic pollution.

While it has implemented a variety of laws to regulate plastic pollution, many of these are at the state or municipal level, such as Mexico City’s move to outlaw single-use plastics. This has resulted in a patchwork of legislation that leads to significant gaps regarding who should enforce what policies and where. When it comes to plastic imports, no government agency currently tracks whether imports are in fact recycled. Some initiatives are seeking to research plastic pollution, such as the Plastic Waste Colonialism and Its Use as Fuel in Mexico. That project has created an interactive map showing where plastic is burned in the country. However, overall, reliable data is lacking.

We do not know which percentage of these imported plastics are going to recycling facilities
Alethia Vázquez Morillas, professor and researcher on urban waste at UAM Azcapotzalco

“We do not know which percentage of these imported plastics are going to recycling facilities,” said Alethia Vázquez Morillas, a professor and researcher on urban waste at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) in Azcapotzalco. “There is no focalised point where all the information is being registered.”

Even without imports, Mexico has a plastics problem. The country is a significant consumer and producer of plastic waste, consuming 66 kg of plastic per capita annually – some way behind the US (221 kg per capita), but similar to developed nations such as Japan and Korea (69 kg, on average). But Mexico does not have the means to recycle all the plastic moving within its borders. The country manages to maintain a high rate of waste collection of over 90%, even though, as Vázquez Morillas reports, more than 200 of its 2,471 municipalities lack formal collection services. However, most of this waste is improperly disposed of, giving Mexico one of the lowest recycling rates in the world, at just 5%.

When recycling is not an option, people are forced to get rid of plastic in whatever way they can – be that by burning or burying it. Doing so has already had devastating environmental impacts: plastic pollution has introduced hazardous materials into the environment, leaking into many Mexican waterways, polluting rivers and beaches, as well as farmland.

Impact on waste workers

Plastic and its pollution have dangerous consequences not only for the environment but for human health, with studies showing how plastic particles have found their way into our food and even our bodies.

A waste pickers sorts plastic bottles by hand at the solid waste recycling plant in Mexico
Worker sorting plastic bottles by hand at the solid waste recycling plant in Xalapa, Veracruz state, Mexico (Image: Hector Adolfo Quintanar Perez / Alamy)

Plastic pollution is particularly dangerous for waste pickers, working largely informally and in close proximity to waste management. For example, a 2022 Human Rights Watch report found that workers at plastic recycling facilities in Turkey are regularly exposed to harmful chemicals when they inhale toxic dust and fumes emitted during the recycling process. This puts them at risk of developing severe and long-term health conditions, including cancer, respiratory illnesses, skin ailments and chronic pain.

Studies have also found that women exposed to toxins in plastic products are at a higher risk of polycystic ovarian syndrome and recurrent miscarriages: their children are more likely to be born with disabilities. The risks are deemed so significant that last year, UN experts said exposure to toxins linked to plastic waste management in Ghana amounted to a violation of recycling workers’ human rights.

In Mexico, the health risks for waste pickers are also high. In the absence of proper waste management systems, it is common for recyclable materials to be mixed with other contaminated waste, according to Tania Espinosa, the Mexico City coordinator for the campaign organisation Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). This can include human or animal excrement, dead animals, medical or special treatment waste, or any other substance that may be harmful to health. Workers also often get cuts or punctures while handling waste, exposing them to infectious and toxic materials. This exposure contributed to waste pickers having a higher death rate than the national average during the Covid-19 pandemic, WIEGO reports.

Recycling workers sorting plastic waste in Mexico City
Informal workers sorting plastic waste in Mexico City, Mexico (Image: César Parra)

These risks are compounded as most waste workers in Mexico lack access to medical care. The majority of waste pickers work in the informal economy, with no insurance or contracts. Many work in landfills that are largely under private control, or in the streets, where neither corporations nor the government provide support.

“The government in Mexico has not dealt with this in a serious way,” said Vázquez Morillas. “They need to sit down with workers and understand what challenges they face and how to best support them.”

Will a global plastic treaty help?

Mexican waste pickers joined forces with waste workers from around the world to have their voices heard at the plastics treaty meeting held in Paris 29 May to 2 June.

The International Alliance of Waste Pickers’ goal is to ensure that the final agreement explicitly recognises and protects plastic workers.

The alliance, Espinosa said, is “proposing that there be core obligations in the treaty that benefit waste pickers, who are the most vulnerable in the recycling value chain.”

Experts are not under any illusions that a global plastic treaty would eradicate the problem of plastic waste in Mexico, nor immediately improve the lives of waste workers. “This treaty is just the beginning,” said Vázquez Morillas.

But waste researchers say these international treaties nevertheless may have the power to cause domestic governments to act. “The global treaty has put pressure on the government,” said Vázquez Morillas. Since nations committed to begin the plastics treaty process last year, the Mexican government’s environmental ministry has begun working with the UN Environment Programme to create the framework for a national inventory for plastic pollution. “I can really see how the announcement of the global treaty last year made things go faster domestically,” Vázquez Morillas added.

For waste pickers, the changes can’t come fast enough – and must go further.

“I like my job,” said Loreto. “I would just like to get paid by the government for the public service I do.”

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network.