Huge mounds of trash are heaped on rural highways, clog the city streets, and ravage the scenic beaches of Mexico. Not every Mexican litters, and those who do may not do it regularly, but as the garbage piles up, many Mexicans seem to remain oblivious to the consequences of this cultural habit.
Litter contributes to the severe flooding that occurs in Mexico City every rainy season, as piles of trash clog up storm drains. Littering is also a health hazard, as roadside dumps breed mosquitoes, which fuels the outbreak of diseases like dengue fever in rural villages in the south.
The city government makes pleas regularly to end the littering, but those pleas seem to be uniformly ignored. Even in upscale neighborhoods like Condesa in Mexico City, trash thrown into the streets is a problem on the rise:
A lack of public concern and responsibility is at the heart of the problem, according to environmental activists. People will put empty bottles into trees, bushes, lampposts – anywhere that is convenient at the moment. Children act by example, imitating their parents and other people by dropping wrappers where they please. City bus drivers tell their passengers to throw trash out the window rather than leave it inside the bus.
“People see it as a problem that doesn’t affect them, but it does,” said Francisco Padron, the director of a Mexico City civic organization whose goal is to educate the public on environmental issues such as this. To many citizens, the littering problem is essentially invisible.
However, it’s not just the people alone; citizens of Mexico share the blame with their government. According to Jorge Trevino, the director of Ecología y Compromiso Empresarial, or ECOCE, an industry-funded group that manages recycling and public awareness campaigns, “There is a lack of political will. There is a lack of infrastructure. In many cities, there is a lack of planning. There is nowhere to put the trash.”
Environmental officials in Mexico say that only a few dozen of over 2,500 Mexican cities, towns and villages actually have a landfill or some other type of municipal garbage dump. One of the largest trash dumps in the world, Bordo Poniente, recently closed, eliminating a place to put waste and exacerbating Mexico’s dilemma.
Alongside the issue of where to put the trash, there’s very little social or legal obligation to be clean – “In the United States, you have an authority that is watching. Here in Mexico, there is nothing like that,” Trevino said. “If you throw trash on the highway here in Mexico, no one says anything.”
In recent years, some Mexican cities have been trying to alleviate the litter crisis by using public shaming as a way to punish people who are caught littering. In Monterrey, a northern Mexican town, a system of public shaming was set in place that plastered the litterer’s mugshot and full name on a giant billboard with the words “Detenido por cochino,” which literally translates to “arrested for being a pig.”
However, this was seen by the human rights commission as going a bit too far, and was ruled unconstitutional in the area. “We have to change the culture of cleanliness in the municipality,” said Mayor Pedro Salgado of San Nicolás de los Garza, a suburb of Monterrey , who defended the decision when asked whether human rights were violated by this kind of punishment. The ruling prompted San Nicolás de los Garza to cover the billboards with the following message, which reads “We disagree, but in compliance with the human rights resolution we are covering up the face of someone who dirties our city.” “Every day, we pick up 25 tons of trash.”
In another attempt to shame a litterer publicly, a city official broadcasted his encounter with a woman he caught dumping trash illegally in a district of Mexico City live on the internet. The video was viewed on Facebook over eight million times. This official uses Periscope, the live streaming video app, to shame citizens who litter. The woman caught on film has become known as “Lady Basura,” or “Lady Garbage.”
In many cities and towns in Mexico, littering is common, even acceptable, because the people view it as someone else’s problem – why shouldn’t they throw their trash in the streets if it’s someone’s job to pick it up in the morning? It will undoubtedly take time for the mindsets of many Mexican citizens to change, and the usefulness of the government’s public shaming approach is uncertain.