An Alternative Development Model Mexico and the Circular Economy: Challenges and Opportunities

Birds at a waste disposal site
8,600 tonnes are taken to waste disposal sites in Mexico City every day, like this one in Nezahualcoyotl, and only 1,900 tonnes are recycled. | Photo (detail): Daniel Aguilar © picture alliance/reuters

For cities to develop sustainably, it’s essential to have a strategy that enables a future with more equality and responsibility for the environment. What the circular economy is and why it represents a feasible and necessary model for megacities like Mexico City.  

By Cristina Ayala-Azcárraga

75 percent of all greenhouse gases are generated in cities. Cities consume around four-fifths of natural resources and produce half of all the Earth’s rubbish. That has serious consequences for the environment and affects the wellbeing of residents. So they are looking at alternative development models for cities, the top priority being to minimise environmental pollution. But in many cases the dominant linear economy has placed its hopes in technology, seeing it as a patent remedy: by using resources more efficiently without having to make radical changes to our production and consumption patterns – which means that we continue to expend resources, ultimately to dispose of them. This appears to be an environmental perspective, but in practice – bearing in mind the huge socioecological crisis in which we currently find ourselves – it falls a long way short.   

On the other hand, the circular economy (CE) has gradually gained the reputation of being a form that diverges from linear production and consumption models in which resources are consumed and transformed into trash. The concept of the circular economy envisages materials and products that maintain their value for as long as possible, encourages a switch to renewable energies, and supports a reduction of production costs – instead of destroying value quickly by creating waste. The circular economy model motivates people to think beyond ownership by offering financial benefits through services and product rental. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, using CE in industry and agriculture could achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases totalling more than nine billion tonnes by 2050.  

Using this circular concept brings hope. But its implementation is still hampered by huge challenges, especially in Latin America, where until now only a few countries have started to consider a circular approach. Mexico City for example produces vast quantities of household waste: 8.600 tonnes are daily disposed of in landfill and only 1.900 tonnes are recycled. For this reason, it is urgently necessary to analyse the megacity’s challenges and opportunities.  

The most pressing challenges include the following:  

Cooperation  

A fundamental element of CE is the cooperation of all those involved at different levels. For instance at a macro level the governments need to create incentives so that the main industry sectors benefit from switching to the circular model. On a micro level, business operators and civil society need to steer towards a model that demonstrates more responsibility in environmental terms. The required collaboration incorporates a risk, especially in countries like Mexico, in which there is reportedly alarmingly low confidence in institutions. According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this distrust in the population has increased over the past decade. This has led to a disconnection that endangers social cohesion and weakens the fabric of society – without which collaboration within a CE is not viable.  

Paradigm Shift 

As with any major change, one of the most critical challenges is the paradigm shift that would be needed to shake off the idea of infinite economic growth. This idea is entrenched across the board, and that applies to the decision-makers as well as members of the community. Switching to more environmentally friendly consumption models to encourage the circular concept requires that we change our expectations of development and rethink our relationship with products. Our idea of progress, success and happiness cannot be coupled with the acquisition of consumer goods any longer.  

This rethinking goes even deeper at government level. Due to the linear perspective that has been behind decisions over the past decades, Mexico City is “car-centric”: priority was given to creation of traffic highways and construction of double-decker roads for cars on bypass routes instead of promoting the mobility of people. If we hope to achieve a city that operates on a circular format, then it’s vital to provide incentives for using public transport and thereby avoid the resulting massive drain on resources when every family has (or would like to have) a car of their own.  

The extractive perspective on which the linear economy is based has also caused Mexico’s continued investment in the oil industry, even stepping up activities by building refineries. One of the fundamental principles of the CE is involvement of renewable energies, and Mexico has access to solar and wind resources that could help the country to diversify its energy matrix. Encouraging these forms of energy not only assures a more future-oriented economy but also generates new sources for sustainable development. At this point, it’s important to recognise that having clean energy sources is indeed imperative in order to reduce environmental damage caused by fuel-based energy production. But at the same time it would be naïve to concentrate our hopes on adapting that same wasteful production model to make it more efficient in ecological terms. It’s far better to incorporate clean energy forms into a circular approach that completely restructures the way in which we’re developing.  

Legislation  

The waste policy in Mexico City includes a ban on marketing, issuing or selling plastic bags, which is aimed at prevention and avoidance. In 2021 there are plans to extend this measure to disposable plastic items such as cutlery, drinking straws, cups and balloons. With this approach, the intention is to generate less rubbish that has to be stored, transported, processed and treated. At the same time they are promoting a culture within society in which daily utensils are used multiple times.  

However, international experience has shown that penalisation strategies don’t always lead to waste reduction. For example in California after they banned plastic carrier bags, purchases of bin liners made from plastic rose sharply. It’s certainly true that we mustn’t continue using materials for just a few minutes when they take hundreds of years to degrade. But it isn’t clear whether these measures will really bring us any closer to a circular city in which the different sectors feel a shared responsibility to recycle rubbish. If measures like this are not mandatory and work as incentives for a circular system based on a broad concept of responsibility, then they could prove insufficient to encourage the switch.   

There are undoubtedly many more challenges for Mexico City, like its enormous number of residents and constantly changing population, the necessary infrastructure for a circular system, or the political and economic instability. This makes it difficult to arrive at a long-term vision for waste management. The latent corruption problem that has unfortunately characterised Mexico for decades makes it all even worse. Nevertheless it’s worthwhile identifying the opportunities CE has to offer.  

The best examples of this include creation of jobs. Initiatives for sustainable development and CE can generate new roles in cross-sector areas such as research, engineering, construction, water treatment, mobility, biotechnology, environmental sciences, information technology and other specialist fields. Between 2012 and 2018 alone, four million jobs relating to circular economy were created in the European Union. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a further 4.8 million jobs could be created in this region through CE by 2030. 

The government of Mexico City has initiated projects like the exchange market, which have turned out to be highly successful. At the market, Mexico City residents can barter their recyclables for fresh produce grown by local farmers. Thanks to this programme 60 tonnes of local produce are distributed across the community, minimal transport distances for supplies are encouraged – and waste products avoid ending up in landfill, where they won’t degrade for hundreds of years.    

For cities to develop sustainably, it’s essential to have a strategy that enables a future with more equality and environmental responsibility. With this in mind, the circular economy is increasingly developing and positioning itself as a viable possibility. But for it to become a reality, we need to look beyond the challenges listed here and bear in mind the complexity of the socioecological and political context – and the fact that everyone involved needs to play an active role in the system switch that the circular economy entails.