MEXICO CITY — I arrived in Mexico for an extended stay just after the arrest of the country's notorious drug kingpin El Chapo. But what strikes me every time I come to this sprawling and colorful capital is something much more mundane, though no less insidious, than narcotics trafficking: plastic.
In Mexico City, every little thing seems to come in or on plastic. Water — because nobody drinks it from the tap — comes in bottles of varying sizes, some thankfully reusable through delivery services. You want a coffee at a stall or a Starbucks-style cafe? That will come in a plastic cup or at least with the plastic caps they insist on fitting onto cups. You can ask for a mug, but after many visits to Mexico City, I know this often prompts a raised eyebrow and a glance that seems to ask "Why are you being awkward?" Orange juice? It will come in a big plastic cup with a top and a (fun) straw. Or for the foul, sugary version, expect to find it in the ubiquitous Tetra Pak packaging. Sandwich? Wrapped in plastic. Even croissants for breakfast are very often presented this way.
It's not unusual to see a range of lunchtime foods for office workers already placed on styrofoam platters and sealed over with foil or cling wrap. Styrofoam, of course, is plastic's ugly cousin. Many taco stands serve this favorite street fare on plates wrapped in plastic bags that are then unwrapped and thrown out. In Iran, there is a metaphor for the utterly unpalatable: snake's poison (zahr-e maar). A family meal, for example, could become "snake poison" after a vicious argument at the table. In Mexico City, even that would come on a plastic platter.
Overflowing bin in Mexico City — Photo: Alidad Vassigh
The supermarket checkout is another flash point. Before you've even taken your wallet out to pay the cashier, the baggers have already stuffed your purchases into one or two or three thin plastic bags. You have to bellow "no bag, please," and then suffer a number of awkward glances from various angles. It's worse than that, actually, because the baggers are unsalaried, earning their living exclusively from shoppers' tips.
Multiply these consumptions by millions daily. Millions of residents drinking and eating from plastic containers, which are wrapped in bags and wrappers that are all tossed within seconds or minutes. The volume of plastic and synthetic trash in Mexico City is monumental. Unlike cities in Europe, there are no street containers for recycling glass, cans, plastic and paper. You can take cans to places you will have to find yourself, where metals are bought by weight. Needless to say, few people do that.
Paris, another city I know well, closed a terrible 2015 of terrorist attacks and rising unemployment with the apparent "good news" of an international accord at the COP21 global climate summit. But my doubts only multiply as I stroll through Mexico City. The quantity of trash generated in this city of some 20 million every day shows a clear, yawning gap between the summit's happy story line of abstract signatures and the reality of life here.
I imagine some are waiting to see results after Paris. Waiting for governments to announce this or decide that, or make more vacuous declarations that soon fall by the wayside like the mountains of plastic wrappers all over Mexico City streets. But is there anything stopping people from doing something about pollution, like now? Just a small change in habit or two — whatever your precious convenience can manage — to reduce your footprint?
I noticed that the city had removed many of the garbage bins that could be intermittently found in public spaces, perhaps because they overflowed, given the crazy discrepancy between their size and all the trash not thrown, but stuffed, into them. Presumably these were designed some time in the 20th century for the odd Kleenex or maybe an apple core, not a tsunami of styrofoam. You might as well throw your trash onto the pavement, as many do.
A "tsunami of styrofoam" — Photo: Alidad Vassigh
Perhaps the plastic that litters the streets of Mexico City will eventually do some good. I personally see no problem with litter on the street. We live in a polluted environment and people should see the pollution they generate. Indeed, the depressing sight of litter may remind people that there is a major environmental problem and they are causing it. Though most will likely veer toward disposal as a solution to trash. If millions of tons are buried somewhere outside the city, or far from where people live — like out in the oceans — well, where is the problem? See no evil, hear no evil.
More depressing than Mexico City's plastic mountains and the market system that favors monumental use of this cheap commodity in an oil-producing country is the the public's apparent indifference to all this. It's not like we've all been starved of information about the environment. For 30 years now we have been showered with facts and figures, dire predictions even. Yet our collective response hovers between paralysis and a deep determination to look away. Call it environmental fatigue.
Where is the hardship in using a plastic bag 20 or 30 times (which I do), or paying 10, 20 or 50 cents for it? Or changing your food shopping habits, a little at least? Like eating less meat when reports concur it is practically as harmful as driving a car? Just a little, enough to send market signals that there is demand for change. Waiting for governments to act is not just complacent but also reeks of hypocrisy. Is shopping not like voting, and supermarkets a meeting point between individuals and corporate interest? Picking this item over that one, saying no to plastic bags, reading the labels and refusing to reward companies that poison the world with your complicity is a democratic and immediate form of exercising power.
And if you're not willing to do that, no summit can save us.
*Alidad Vassigh is a Madrid-based writer and translator. He was born in Tehran, educated in France and England, and moves about frequently between Madrid, Mexico City and Bogotá until he decides where to settle.
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