Mexico City had a problem with waste long before the country’s largest rubbish dump closed. When authorities shut the Bordo Poniente landfill site, in early 2012, it was receiving the bulk of the 12,000 tonnes of waste the capital was producing every day. Yet just 12 per cent of it was being recycled. And some 70 million tonnes of waste remains buried there, causing untold pollution problems.

Closing the landfill created what one writer called a “giant, filthy problem” – trash piling up at illegal dumping sites, rubbish bags lining the streets. Indeed, as the Guardian put it, it “highlighted the absence of a comprehensive policy for urban waste collection, disposal and processing”. With just two dumps serving all of Mexico City – a metropolitan area with a population of 24 million – the authorities needed to come up with solutions, and fast.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, recylcing, sustainia, Mexico city

A number of initiatives were launched to recover recyclable materials from the piles of rubbish. Yet perhaps the most eye-catching one was the Mercado de Trueque, or Barter Market. Launched by the Mexican government’s environmental agency just weeks after the Bordo Poniente landfill closed, the market has a very simple premise. Residents who bring along recyclable waste can exchange it for vouchers (“puntos verdes”, or green points) that can be used at nearby farmers markets.

According to the city, more than 3,000 families brought almost 11 tonnes of recyclable waste on the market's opening day. And it’s never looked back. Today, it pops up on the second Sunday of the month at locations across the capital, and attracts more than 4,000 people. They exchange an average of 15 tonnes of waste every month – from paper, glass and cardboard, to plastic bottles, aluminium cans and small electrical appliances. Government employees and volunteers sort the waste and deliver it to appropriate treatment plants.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, recylcing, sustainia, Mexico city2

The social, economic and environmental benefits of the market are obvious. As well as recycling more waste, it raises awareness of the problem and need for a better recycling culture. The scheme also incentivises people to buy fresh, locally grown food – critical in a country where malnutrition remains a problem. The market also helps boost the local agricultural economy and generates both public and private-sector jobs (for example, in food production and waste collection) – a much-needed shot in the arm in a city where a quarter of a million people are unemployed.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, recylcing, sustainia, Mexico city3

Authorities say 128,290 tonnes of recyclable waste were collected at the Barter Market in 2014. That figure might sound small compared to the total amount of waste produced in the city – but it’s a start, and an example for other cities.

After all, waste management is a serious problem for the world’s rapidly growing cities. In 2012, the World Bank’s Urban Development department warned that the amount of municipal solid waste would increase from 1.3 billion tonnes per year to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025, while the annual global cost of solid waste management would rise from $205 billion to $375 billion. Developing countries would bear the strain, the bank said.

Finding smarter approaches to waste collection may provide one such solution. And enterprising markets, like the one in Mexico City, typify the kind of imaginative thinking required. Indeed, they say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If we’re going to do something about our problem with waste, swapping trash for tamales is a good place to start.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think-tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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