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Mexico City's Recycling Incentive: More Food

Mexico City has a massive trash problem that's partially caused by citizens' resistance to recycle. To encourage them to do so, the city gives residents food vouchers in exchange for their recyclable waste.

Mexico City is big. With a sprawling metro population around 20 million, it's one of the largest urban areas on the planet. And all those people produce a lot of trash -- about 12,000 tons of solid waste every day.

Up until about a year ago, most of that trash was being sent to one landfill, a massive dump on the east side of the capital called Bordo Poniente. In use since 1985, the site had amassed some 76 million tons of waste. The national government began pushing to close the dump in 2008; the city finally shuttered the site in December 2011. But officials neglected to come up with an alternative solution. As a result, Mexico City faced a giant, filthy problem. Mountains of trash piled up at illegal dumping sites throughout the city, and garbage bags lined the streets. Many neighboring sites refused to take Mexico City's trash, and those that did were overwhelmed. Garbage trucks waited six hours at some landfills; most of the trucks simply had nowhere to go.

Officials needed to cut waste and encourage recycling, but simply distributing blue recycling bins wouldn't have been enough. They came up with an innovative idea: Let residents trade trash for food.

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The city set up a massive farmers market -- Mercado del Trueque, or "barter market" -- in a large park west of the capital. Under a canopy of big trees, families gathered in the Bosque de Chapultepec park, hauling their paper, metals and other recyclable waste to exchange for "green point" vouchers based on weight. Under large white tents, government employees and volunteers sorted items and distributed vouchers. Residents then redeemed their points for seasonal produce from local farmers.

More than 3,000 families lined up with bags of trash on the market's opening day. The city estimates the market brought in nearly 11 tons of recyclables in its first day. Since then itís been held the first Sunday of every month. The government sells the raw materials to manufacturers, but doesn't collect quite enough to cover all the food costs. Officials subsequently have expanded the program to include used electronics and other types of recyclables. In addition to mitigating the city's waste problem, the market provides residents access to an array of fresh fruits and vegetables. At the September market, for example, shoppers chose from 8 tons of broccoli, onions, spinach and other healthy foods.

Despite the program's success, it's a small dent in Mexico City's massive trash problem. But officials hope the experience of the Mercado del Trueque could encourage residents to recycle more regularly. (Only about 12 percent of Mexico Cityís waste typically gets recycled.) It's part of a larger wake-up call about handling urban waste, says Pierre Terras, a Greenpeace campaigner in Mexico City. "Now they know that it's a big problem we need to solve very urgently."

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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