Turning the Tide on Waste: Mexico's Journey towards a Circular Economy
As one of Latin America's most prodigious producers of waste, Mexico faces an urgent and complex challenge. Annually generating around 53.1 million tons of waste, with a mere 84% collected, Mexico stands at a critical juncture where the country's waste management practices need radical transformation. Mexico City alone produces 12,998 tons of municipal solid waste daily, revealing a sobering picture of consumption, industrial development, and urban population growth. Amidst this dire scenario, the concept of a Circular Economy (CE) has emerged as a beacon of sustainable progress, with countries globally integrating it into their regulatory systems. As a potential trailblazer, Mexico has started to adopt CE measures with the intent to curb waste, promote recycling, and endorse responsible consumption. Official figures show that 1.2 kg of garbage is generated per person every day, owing to an increase in the urban population, changes in consumption patterns, and even industrial development and technological advances.
The difficulties in disposing of municipal solid waste (MSW) are numerous. Today, there is a lack of public policies that include prevention factors and consumer awareness actions that stem the increase in waste, but also the absence of campaigns that alert about the serious impact on health and the environment because of tons of waste that accumulate each year in streets, parks, public squares, beaches and recreational spaces throughout the country.
To begin, the Mexican government could implement environmental measures used in other countries with similar waste generation problems and national campaigns to educate the population about what they consume and how they consume it. CE policies are a promising starting point that has grown in popularity in recent years and that more and more countries are incorporating into their regulatory frameworks. Mexico cannot be the exception.
Mexican Regulation on Circular Economy
Mexico has included a general rule centred on waste generation avoidance since 2003, with various regulatory instruments at both the federal and local levels. The move to a CE model with a more appropriate general regulatory framework is, however, still in its early stages. In general, three layers of regulation can be distinguished:
The General Law for Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (Ley General para el Equilibrio Ecológico y la Protección al Ambiente) (LGEEPA; DOF 1988) provides windows of opportunity such as economic instruments, clean energy schemes, recycling and reuse, and sets standards for the maximum permitted air and water emissions. The Mexican Political Constitution establishes the legal bases to implement a CE strategy; this foundation is further developed by environmental legislation. The General Law for the Prevention and Integral Management of Waste (Ley General para la Prevención y Gestión Integral de los Residuos) (LGPGIR; DOF 2003) declares three categories of waste: municipal solid waste (MSW), special handling waste (ACS), and hazardous waste, and establishes roles, jurisdiction, management, disposal, and remediation sites. Furthermore, the General Law on Climate Change (Ley General de Cambio Climático) (LGCC; DOF 2012) is a helpful tool for promoting CE because it mandates the implementation of mitigation strategies in sectors like waste, electricity generation (31% of GHG), residential and commercial (18%), industry (5%), agriculture and livestock (8%) and waste (28%) to reduce GHG emissions compared to the baseline of 1990. Last but not least, the Energy Transition Law (Ley de Transición Energética) (LTE) encourages the employment of waste recycling technologies in the production of electricity.
Federal and Local Level
According to the LGPGIR, governments must conform their laws and plans to the national regulatory framework because they also have authority over waste management. Yet only 23 of Mexico's 32 states now have a regulatory framework for the circular economy (SEMARNAT 2020). For instance, the Circular Economy Law of Mexico City, which intends to encourage and promote responsible production and consumption practises through reuse, restoration, remanufacturing, and recycling, went into effect on March 1, 2023.
Mexico has ratified environmental treaties and protocols on an international level through the United Nations. It can be claimed that the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are categorised for the EC's implementation.
Some Success Stories of the Circular Economy in Mexico
Although Mexico lags behind the other OECD members in terms of CE rules, and its implementation has been slowly adopted in some federated states, there are examples of successful Mexican businesses that have already incorporated CE into their business strategies.
The company developed its "Urban Forest" circular economy model. It entails generating high-quality paper and paper products from 100% recycled raw materials, thereby divorcing the production of paper and its derivatives from the extraction of virgin natural resources and extending the material's life cycle. With this method, the corporation was able to reduce polluting trash while also optimising energy and natural resource consumption. There have been 15.7 million trees rescued, 29 million tonnes of CO2 trapped, and 795 tonnes of paper and cardboard salvaged and recycled.
It is a corporation that manufactures and sells household cleaning goods. With the Uumbal project, which is dedicated to the production and processing of certified palm oil and pine resin, the company made an agroforestry investment in regenerative, sustainable, and fair-trade techniques in 2011. Uumbal has turned the area that was previously utilised for cattle farming into forestry and agricultural land, devoting over 4,000 hectares to the conservation of natural and secondary forest, 10,000 to palm planting, and 5,000 to pine planting. This has helped to safeguard more than 300 species of flora and fauna in conservation areas.
Furthermore, it has made its palm plant electricity self-sufficient by using renewable sources. As a result, the company becomes more sustainable, contributes to ecosystem restoration, and returns biological resources to the biosphere.
It is the largest bottler in the world by sales volume. One of their concerns was the fate of their older coolers. It opened its EOS - REPARE plant in 2019 to examine cooler components at points of sale and capitalise on them through recovery, repair, reuse, or recycling.
The plant has thus handled up to 99% of the components of refrigerators that have reached the end of their useful life, resulting in the reuse of more than 57,000 coolers in 25,000 new pieces of equipment. Thus far, this work has avoided more than 1.8 million tonnes of CO2.
It is a bottling firm and the second largest in Latin America (after FEMSA) of The Coca-Cola Corporation. It has developed a wetland capable of purifying 3 million litres of urban water per day as part of its goal to return 100% of the water utilised in its activities to nature. The end result is treated water for flower nurseries and agroforestry production, which is used by over 18,000 farmers.
The company certified 13 of its manufacturing facilities as Zero Waste and joined the Voluntary Agreement for Clean Production, which was signed by Arca, Coca-Cola, and the Mexican government. Short-term goals include collecting and recycling 100% of its containers and incorporating an average of 50% recycled material into its bottles by 2030.
The Mexican petrochemical company Braskem Idesa launched the first high-density polyethene resin (HDPE) made from post-consumer recycled material, made up of 30%, 50% and 70% recycled and virgin resin. By implementing this circular model, the company saves natural resources in production, extends the life cycle of plastic, and has a beneficial environmental and social impact.
What is Missing in the Short and Medium Term
Although the CE is having growing acceptance in Mexico and Latin America, to date there is little documentation of success stories. Probably, this gap is due to the lack of knowledge of the concept by a large part of the population, the lack of favourable conditions in the environment and the little communication of successful projects. It is necessary to close this gap by disseminating highly relevant cases in the region that can inspire organizations from different sectors, such as the recyclers' union, which is particularly large in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
The attempts to switch from a linear to a circular model entail overcoming significant obstacles, chief among which is a gradual transformation in how businesses operate and how they conduct business, as well as altering how they interact with their stakeholders.
Mexico stands on the precipice of environmental reform. The country is taking strides to reshape its waste management systems and align them with the principles of the Circular Economy. However, the road ahead is fraught with challenges. Moving from a linear to a circular model involves not only altering business operations and practices but also transforming relationships with stakeholders. While Mexico has begun to lay the groundwork for a circular economy and some companies are already seeing success, there remains a vast gulf between current conditions and a sustainable future. The next few years will be pivotal in determining how well Mexico can implement the CE principles, with the possibility of it becoming a model for other nations facing similar waste management challenges. The journey ahead is arduous, but the rewards are promising, both for Mexico and for our planet's future.