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Formal and informal recovery of

recyclables in Mexicali, Mexico: Handling

Article in Resources Conservation and Recycling · March 2002

Impact Factor: 2.56 · DOI: 10.1016/S0921-3449(01)00105-7


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3 authors, including:

Sara Ojeda-Benitez
Autonomous University of Baja Califor…


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Resources, Conservation and Recycling
34 (2002) 273–288

Formal and informal recovery of recyclables in

Mexicali, Mexico: handling alternatives
Sara Ojeda-Benitez *, Carolina Armijo-de-Vega 1,
Ma. Elizabeth Ramı́rez-Barreto 2
Engineering Institute of the Uni6ersidad Autonoma de Baja, PO Box 3439, Calexico, CA 92232, USA

Received 24 April 2001; accepted 5 September 2001


The purpose of this paper is to review the case of a Mexican municipality in this field and
highlight and identify critical gaps to be addressed. The paper seeks to explore intersectorial
partnerships as a means to achieve sustainable solid waste management systems. Its point of
departure is that, the highest level of service and maximum benefit is gained when a
municipality sees its solid waste management mandates and handicaps clearly, uses the
strengths of the other actors. The four main types of actors considered in this paper are: the
municipal government, the formal private (commercial) sector, and the informal sector,
which, includes individuals, small entrepreneurs, and micro-enterprises already working with
discarded materials or having the potential to do so. Community based organizations
(CBOs), either idealistically motivated or working for their own welfare, and non-govern-
mental organizations (NGOs), usually in pursuit of their own idealistic goals are also a part
of the informal sector. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Solid waste management; Recyclable waste; Recoverable refuse; Waste pickers; Itinerant
waste pickers; Formal and informal sector

* Corresponding author. Tel./fax: +1-52-6566-4150.

E-mail addresses: (S. Ojeda-Benitez), (C. Armijo-
de-Vega), (M.E. Ramı́rez-Barreto).

0921-3449/02/$ - see front matter © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 9 2 1 - 3 4 4 9 ( 0 1 ) 0 0 1 0 5 - 7
274 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

1. Background

Accelerated population growth and production and consumer patterns have

brought on a series of problems on a worldwide scale, because of a lacking of
environmental controls in industrial processes as well as inadequate or insufficient
facilities for waste management and treatment.
Urban growth has promoted an increase in the generation of waste from
activities in homes, private and public services sites, construction, demolition,
commercial and service establishments. This is considered municipal solid waste
and its final disposal is the last phase of the urban sanitation system of any city,
closely related to the preservation of the environment as well as public health, so
control and treatment must be done through an adequate system that minimizes
negative impacts to the ecosystems.
Increased generation of household waste, which surpasses the assimilation capac-
ity of the ecosystems and the insufficient installed capacity for its handling,
promotes the proliferation of open air dumps, with a greater risk to public health,
to the ecosystems and to the quality of life.
In Mexico, the regulation for handling and final disposal of household refuse is
a matter of state and municipal competence; however, the Federation, through the
Instituto Nacional de Ecologı́a (National Institute of Ecology, INE), may promote
coordination and counseling agreements at these government levels and implement
and improve the collection, treatment and final disposal methods to municipal solid
waste at a given municipality.
Table 1 shows information on Mexico’s landfilled solid wastes in 1998, which
represents 84.63% of the volume of waste generated (INEGI, 1999). Table 1
indicates that, only 52% of the total amount of municipal solid wastes collected for
final disposal is permanently deposited at a site with adequate environmental
This paper includes an analysis of municipal solid waste being generated in
Mexicali and their recycling potential. Mexicali is a Mexican city located in the
State of Baja along the US/Mexico border; the paper specifically discusses the key
roles that formal and informal sectors play on Mexicali’s waste management
Mexicali houses 33% of Baja California’s population, which, totals 2.1 million
inhabitants. Baja California’s population has been growing rapidly— averaging

Table 1
Municipal solid wastes disposal rate (thousands of tonnes/year)

Controlled landfills 15 877.14

Non-controlled landfills 1007.49
Open air dumps 13 458.96
Recycling 206.91
Total municipal solid wastes 30 550.50

Source, Environmental Statistics, México 1999 (INEGI).

S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 275

3.6% between 1980 and 1990, accelerating to 5.5% in 1992 and declining to 4.3% in
1995. Baja California population is doubling every two decades, with out-of-state
in-migration being a key element in this growth. This is due to both its economic
succes and its proximity to the United States. Baja California, also has one of the
highest per capita incomes among all Mexican states (Ojeda et al., 2000).
Mexicali’s refuse output increases by 3.3% annually. Total refuse generation
currently stands at 169 546 tonnes/year in urban areas and 10 526 tonnes/year in
rural ones. This translates into an average refuse density of 255.2 kg/m3. Consider-
ing this, the city has recognized the need to seek solid waste management
Various studies Hounsou (1998), Missionaries (1998), Secretariado de Manejo del
Medio Ambiente para América Latina y el Caribe (1998a), Ojeda et al. (2000)
indicate that in recent years the level of interest on solid waste recovery and
recycling has increased. In industrialized countries, recycling activities have in-
creased, mainly because of political pressure arising from public opposition towards
final disposal sites. The economic pressure associated withy high disposal costs
linked to land shortages as well as public rejection over dumps located near homes
also affects solid waste management practices in these countries. Developing
countries on the other hand, are trying to achieve the basic task of garbage
collection. In such countries, recycling occurs as a response to the industrial
demand for materials that can be used as raw material. That is to say, recyclables
that have some commercial value (van Beukering et al., 1999).
Municipalities with a more progressive vision have searched for different ap-
proaches using non-traditional methods for the sector which handles solid wastes.
On occasions, these methods are used in an effort to bring services to low income
areas. In Latin America, where municipal services for solid waste handling do not
have the capacity to advance at the pace of urban growth, the informal sector has
been used as a tool bringing services to low income areas (Hernández et al., 1999).
Many municipal governments in Latin America are responding to the problems
of solid waste handling by developing their own alternatives. Several municipalities
have included recycling among their solutions Secretariado de Manejo del Medio
Ambiente para América Latina y el Caribe (1998b), Hernández et al. (1999),
focusing attention towards the economic benefits of recycling as well as public
health protection. In the case of Mexicali, recycling has been a result of the acting
parties initiative, as opposed to municipal government initiative.
The process of recovering recyclables is a complex structure of multi-level
systems involving waste generators such as households, businesses, institutions and
industries and continuing with systems for collection, separation or recovery,
buying and selling of recyclables, final disposal and transformation, use of recy-
clables, etc. Both formal and informal sectors are involved in this process.
The formal sector has traditionally responded to business opportunities moti-
vated by economic profit. Ocassionally, there is a distant relation between produc-
ers and consumers. The nature of the formal sector is centered on capital
investment. This takes it to a higher level of dependency on governmental policy;
and therefore, there are greater possibilities of regulating it. The formal sector
276 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

Fig. 1. Parties involved in the generation, handling, final disposal and separation of recyclables.

functions through a relatively closed system, not flexible and as a result, growing
more slowly. This sector tries to explore markets inside and outside its immediate
The informal sector is more flexible and offers a more open system, which
responds basically to local needs and demands. Generally, in the informal sector,
there is a direct relationship between producers and consumers, requiring low
capital, which allows for more rapid growth. This peculiar nature of the informal
sector makes monitoring and regulation more difficult. A characteristic common to
both sectors is market variability.

2. Handling of municipal solid waste in Mexicali

Although, various community groups, businesses, learning institutions, and pri-

vate citizens participate in waste generation, handling and final disposal of solid
wastes poses a problem for the municipal administration. However, it is important
to emphasize that the generators of such wastes do not realize that the problem is
not exclusive of the Municipality, but rather a shared responsibility.
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 277

The generation, handling and final disposal practices of Mexicali’s solid waste
is described through Fig. 1, which represents the existing relation between the
different actors involved in waste generation, handling, final disposal and source
separation of recyclables.
The ‘solid waste generators’ column refers to the generators or waste produc-
ing sources; the ‘refuse collection’ column refers to municipal and private waste
collection providers, which collect waste from the generating sources. This
column also includes the final disposal end of Mexicali’s waste management. The
‘recyclables collection and sale’ column includes the waste pickers from the mu-
nicipal waste collection service, the landfill waste pickers and itinerants waste
pickers (pepenadores ambulantes); the latter corresponds to the informal sector,
which is described later in this paper. The recyclables buying and selling centers
and the recycling industries, that conform the formal sector, are also discussed in
subsequent sections. The ‘transformation’ column includes the recycling indus-
tries and their products. The type of line utilized indicates the flows of recy-
clables, showing the type of relation existing between those parties involved in
the process of recovering of recyclables.
As shown in Fig. 1, the voluntary separation3 of recyclables is done mainly by
the industrial sector and householders; however, this activity is very rudimentary,
because of low voluntary participation. The collection of recyclables by itinerant
waste pickers (pepenadores ambulantes) may also be considered rudimentary
because, (a) itinerant waste pickers do not collect in all city neighbourhoods, and
(b) waste picking is done rumagging through trash bags on the sidewalk so the
amount of recyclables they rescue will depend on the speed on which they open
the trash bags and separate valuable items; and therefore, on the number of
houses and city neighborhoods they can visit in a day’s work. However, and in
spite of the low impact it has on discarded trash volume, the recyclables’ separa-
tion activity done by the informal sector is of particular importance, as it is not
the size of the activity that is relevant but the fact that it is customarily done.
Whithout this, whatever was voluntarily separated from the municipal waste
would be the only material reaching the recycling companies’ grounds. Also Fig.
1 shows that, recycling industries import wastes from the United States, which
are transformed in Mexico.
Itinerant waste pickers and those who work at Mexicali’s landfill are the main
providers of recyclables for middlemen and recycling industries.
Mexicali’s waste management system consists of three phases: collection, trans-
ference station and final disposal (landfill); in each of these phases only a small
quantity of recyclables are recovered.

Voluntary separation refers to the separation of recyclable material to be voluntarily taken to the
recyclables buying and selling center. The economic benefit is for the families and industries that
separate and sell their refuse.
278 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

2.1. Solid waste collection system

The collection of household and institutional waste is carried out by Mexicali’s

Sanitation Department (Departamento de Limpia). The collection of wastes gener-
ated by businesses and industries is done by two private companies.
Mexicali, through its Mexicali’s Sanitation Department (Departamento de
Limpia), is in charge of collecting the trash produced by local families. The
inhabitants of the various city neighborhoods, that make up the Mexicali commu-
nity deposit their solid waste in plastic containers, metal cans or in plastic bags and
place them on the streets sidewalks without separating the recyclables.
In order to provide for the household collection system, the Sanitary Department
divides Mexicali into 79 collection routes, 2 days a week each route, in 352 city
zones (85 000 homes).
Solid, non-domestic waste includes, discards generated by industries, workshops,
businesses, restaurants, public service establishments, entertainment offices and the
like, whose waste is handled through agreements with private collection services, or
use the special service provided by the Sanitation Department, which charges a
specific fee. The wastes collected through this system are sent directly to Mexicali’s
2.2. Solid waste transfer/hauling system

Refuse hauling is an intermediate stage between generation and final disposal of

the trash generated at the city’s households. Mexicali’s transfer station is managed
by a private company operating through a city grant. It is located in the south
periphery of the city, within an urban sprawl area. In order to perform activities at
its site, there is a loading and unloading area of approximmately 200 m2 for
collection trucks. After picking up trash from households throghout Mexicali, the
collection trucks from all routes deposit the collected trash in a transfer station.
Later, this waste will be loaded into 20 m3 trucks and taken to the landfill located
20 km away from the transfer station on the city outskirts.
2.3. Final disposal

Final disposal represents the third phase in Mexicali’s solid waste. This stage
starts with the arrival of trash to the landfill located 20 km east of the city’s
outskirts. It lies next to a former landfill that operated from 1991 to 1997.
At Mexicali’s landfill, waste salvaging is done by approximately 120 persons, who
are part of the informal sector. The municipality is responsible for operation of the
landfill. While the waste pickers work, two backhoes mix the trash to bury it and
cover it with an approximately 15 cm layer of dirt on a daily basis.
It is important to point out that once the trash is buried, no monitoring tests are
done on the quality of groundwater or accumulated gases in the landfill, and no
tests have been performed on any former disposal sites located within the urban
sprawl area, thus becoming a latent health and safety threat of serious conse-
quences to the Mexicali community as a whole.
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 279

3. Recovery of recyclables

The recovery of recyclables is not a new idea, Bartone (1999) indicates that its
origins go back to ancient urban societies that recognized the intrinsic value of
waste. China is an example of this, for centuries this culture has worked with
systems for the collection of excrement as a main source of fertilizer to sustain
intensive agricultural activities in rural zones.
Currently, there are more opportunites of waste recovery, because, the waste
generated by modern society contains more varied materials, and a large amount of
these have added value due to manufacturing processes. That is why, in the
management of municipal solid waste it is fundamental to decide if it is going to be
eliminated as trash or it is going to be taken advantage of for the value it still has.

3.1. Reco6ery of recyclables by the formal sector

The supply of materials for the recycling industries in the Mexicali is done
through formal and informal recovery of recyclables.
Formal recovery is done by legally established businesses that pay taxes and
work under a commercial name. These types of businesses are commonly known as
‘chatarreros’, ‘junkes’ or yards. Usually the ‘chatarreros’ buy containers made of
aluminum, glass or plastic, paper and cardboard. The ‘junkes’ or yards especialize
in larger sized items such as cars, refrigerators, metal furniture, etc. This paper
discusses only the ‘chatarreros’ group. The ‘chatarreros’ of the area collect all types
of waste that can be sold for recycling or transformation; however, each business of
this type especializes in buying certain kind of waste; for example, some will only
buy metals, others buy paper and cardboard exclusively, others buy only plastic or
glass, etc. But there are also ‘chatarreros’ that will buy various types of waste. In
all cases they only receive waste that has a commercial value and that can later be
sold to comercial recyclers.
The ‘chatarreros’ buy recyclables from individuals who separate materials with
commercial value in their homes and sell them to ‘chatarreros’, as well as to those
that do materials recovery informally (itinerant waste pickers, or those who work at
Mexicali’s landfill). Some ‘chatarreros’ avoid buying from individuals or landfill
pickers, because, their items are very dirty. This makes it difficult and sometimes
impossible to sell them, because, the recycling process then becomes more complex
and costly. As a result, many ‘chatarreros’ buy only clean items and make sure they
are bought before getting soiled, that is, from their point of origin, before being
taken to the landfill, because, once in the landfill, ‘clean’ waste is mixed with all
types of waste. In this case the ‘chatarreros’ buy directly at the source of
post-industrial waste; that is to say, waste from some industrial processes whose
discards are potentially recyclable.
The buyers of recyclable materials may be domestic or foreign. The first ones
may be local or from Monterrey or Guadalajara, two of the major industrial cities
of Mexico. In the case of foreign buyers, they usually are recycling companies from
the United States. The sale is finally made to the buyer offering the best price.
280 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

Even though many of these businesses use a commercial name that includes the
word ‘recycling’, some are in effect centers which buy and sell recyclable materials.
At these sites, material is bought, and, in many cases, compacted, grinded, packed
and sold to comercial recyclers.
This type of businesses are ‘sui generis’, because, theirs is the opposite of normal
trade; that is to say, they buy at retail and sell wholesale, and therefore, face the
problem that fiscal regulations do not have a practical application to the reality of
their activity; in addition, because of their line of business and handling practices,
they make up a sector, that lacks a legal marketing opportunities.
Recyclers are companies dedicated in a formal way to the transformation of
salvaged materials into new ones, that is, from recovered materials with no
comercial value into new products or raw feedstocks for certain industrial pro-
cesses. The recyclers buy recyclable materials from formal or informal ‘chatarreros’,
on ocassion picking up such the recyclables at the landfill or buying directly from
the industries or individuals that bring their materials to them. Some recyclers,
specially the paper processors, import recyclables (i.e. paper and cardboard) from
the United States, because, in that country they separate waste at its origin so it is
cleaner when it arrives for processing.
There are also centers for confinement of non-hazardous solid wastes derived
from industrial activities; these sites do not commercialize the waste they receive.
They charge to receive the waste and dispose of it in facilities, that must meet
storage and handling standards. These types of establishments are not analyzed in
this paper, but it is important to mention them, since, they are part of the municipal
solid waste management system. It is also important to point out that these sites
may receive waste that still has recycling potential.
Table 2 shows the number of companies dedicated to buying and selling
recyclables, manufacturing products, using recyclable feedstocks and confinement
of solid waste in Mexicali, Baja California.
As shown in Table 2, there are more establishments dedicated to buying and
selling recyclables, than those actually making recycled products. Some establish-
ments dedicated to buying and selling recyclables, commercialize more than one
type of waste, so the sum of this row in the table is not equal to the number of
establishments. Table 3 indicates the number of businesses dedicated to these

Table 2
Number of companies that trade recyclables in Mexicali, by waste type

Activity Metals Glass Paper and corrugated Plastics Cars Waste tires Used oil

Recycling 3 2 6 1 0 0 1
Buy back/sale 18 3 4 3 5 0 0
Final disposal 2 0 0 0 0 1 0
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 281

Table 3
Number of recycling, final disposal and sale centers (middlemen) that trade recyclables in Mexicali

Activity Number of companies

Recycling 13
Buy back/sale centers (middlemen) 22
Final disposal 2
Total 37

The purchasing prices also vary depending on offer and demand of the product,
domestically and abroad. This variance responds directly to offer and demand of
the material in question. This poses a problem for those dedicated, informally and
formally, to buying and selling recyclable materials, because, it creates uncertainty
about which type of waste to invest time and money in order to make a profit. On
occasions, merchants are forced to keep products stored for weeks until there is a
market for them.
This uncertainty in the recyclables market also causes problems when trying to
implement public awareness programs focusing on the recovery of recyclable
materials, since, it is a disheartening element for those who are just starting or are
not completely convinced of the benefits associated with source separation and
With respect to the organization of the formal sector of recyclers and ‘chatar-
reros’ in Mexico, there are two associations, which belong to the Cámara Nacional
de la Industria de la Transformación (National Chamber for the Transformation
Industry, CANACINTRA). One of these associations includes more than 1200
individuals, companies of various sizes and capacities, associations and several
groups from the ‘chatarreros’ sector that recovers, commercializes and transforms,
in a rudimentary way domestic and industrial materials rescued from the waste
stream and reuse throughout the country.

3.2. Reco6ery of recyclables by the informal sector

Bartone (1999) indicates that the recovery of recyclables is an activity almost

always done by the informal sector through their member groups. Also, Jaramillo
(1999) indicates that the recycling activity is usually identified with a small group of
individuals walking the streets with a bag over their shoulders and another group
that collects in open air dumps and/or landfills.
An important characteristic of waste recovery and recycling in developing
countries is the participation of the informal sector. Various studies reveal that, the
sector is mainly involved in recovery and re-sale of most of the recyclables, a very
arduous activity. However, in spite of its significant contribution to the recovery
and recycling process, its role in the system for municipal waste handling is still not
acknowledged, and its profits continue being scarce (Caceres, 1996; PRECEUP,
1996, 1998; Hernández et al., 1999; van Beukering et al., 1999; Fujita, 2000).
282 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

Taylor (1999) presents the results of some studies done in different countries on
the contribution of the informal sector in tasks of solid waste recovery. Among the
reported results the following cases stand out: waste pickers in Jakarta, Indonesia
recover 25% of the city’s waste and are responsible for recovering 90% of the
material that is recycled; in Surabaya, Indonesia, waste pickers recover 12% of the
city’s total waste and 31% of inorganic recyclables; in Bangkok, Thailand waste
pickers recycle 5% of municipal solid waste that is collected and in Hochimin City,
waste pickers recover 7% of total non-perishables generated in the city. In Mexicali,
Mexico, the recovery of waste is also done through the participation of the informal
sector, but its exact contribution has not been determined.
The presence of waste pickers, persons that literally live on waste and are
completely dependent on it for their food and clothing, is characteristic of trash
dumps in developing countries. In different studies it has been indicated that the
term used in referring to this group and popular recycling centers, greatly varies:
scavengers, collectors, recyclers, rag-pickers, intermediaries, small industries, neigh-
borhood groups and cooperatives are sometimes mixed in the same group.
In some countries, the waste pickers are mainly men organized or grouped in
bands or trade unions. In other cultures the waste pickers are women or entire
families of men, women and children (Blight and Mbande, 1996). The presence and
activities of the the waste pickers do not represent something bad in itself, since it
is a source of income for these families and they help reduce the volume of waste
to be deposited, and also keep articles in circulation for recycling or reuse that
otherwise would end in the landfill.
In some parts of the world, waste picking is done near the source, that is, after
collection has taken place at the generating sources but, before being transported to
the dump or landfill.
In the case of Mexicali the situation described above is very common; in fact, it
could be said that the problem of collection, handling and final disposal of solid
waste, as a product of human coexistence, has a social meaning, in public health,
economy and ecology, which requires a prompt solution.
In Mexicali a solid waste management plan does not exist, because, until now all
known possible options have not been applied, such as: reduction at origin,
recycling, and waste reusing.
The separation and collection activities for recycling in this locality, are done in
an informal manner so the income and activities generated are considered an
informal economy. Fig. 2 shows the flow of recyclables in the city of Mexicali,
where the participation of the informal sector stands out.
The following paragraphs describe the manner in which the itinerant waste
pickers, landfill waste pickers and waste generators separate the recyclables.
(a) Itinerant waste pickers (pepenadores ambulates). Individuals that roam the
streets collecting objects (for example, aluminum cans, plastic and cardboard,
among other items). They go from house to house buying refuse that families
consider of no value (i.e. iron scraps, bottles, old furniture) to sell it to
gathering centers. In the case of Mexicali, there are no studies on the subject;
so it is unknown what number of persons living off this activity.
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 283

(b) Voluntary household waste separation. This is done at home through separa-
tion of some materials that are later taken to dismantling and junk businesses.
(c) Landfill waste pickers. Individuals whose income comes solely from collecting
and separating some recyclable materials at the local landfill and selling such
materials to merchants or ‘chatarreros’.
Waste picking in the locality is not exclusive of the urban zones, evidence of
which is that everyday at the landfill located outside the city, collection of waste
that can be recycled or reused is done by hand, as part of the economic dynamics
of the place.
A distinctive trait of the waste pickers of the Mexicali landfill is that they are
organized in two groups. Free waste pickers, made up of 40 persons; and the
second group, of more than 80 members affiliated to a union that was found in
According to the information provided by the waste pickers working in the
landfill, they collect mainly No. 1 plastic (PET), then, following in importance are
aluminum cans, No. 2 plastic (HDPE) and metals. The material is selected for
collection in terms of the market for each product.

Fig. 2. Flow of recyclable materials by informal sector.

284 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

With regard to prices, for each product there is a broad range of values, because,
waste pickers do not have an exact control on what they get paid per kilogram of
material and prices vary among companies or gathering centers.
The most common way of selling the collected material is directly to the
companies that attend the site daily, another option is to take the material
personally to the company or gathering center or through middlemen.
One of the principles that must motivate the changes proposed to the handling
system of municipal solid waste is that waste pickers must be moved up in the social
scale, turning them into respectable small recycling contractors with the resulting
benefits for those same waste pickers and for the community as a whole.

4. Proposals for the recovery of recyclables in Mexicali before final disposal

One of the groups that has participated systematically in the recovery of

recyclables in Mexicali is the informal sector. That is why it is necessary to present
alternatives for the exploitation of recyclables and integrate the informal sector to
the formal one. In order to achieve the use of refuse with recycling potential in this
city, it is necessary to involve the formal as well as the informal sectors in the
activities of recyclable recovery, considering the following alternatives.
“ Waste picking can be combined with the hiring of small scale waste collection
services, which makes a contractor necessary, who would be responsible for the
collection of waste in a given number of houses. As part of the process, he
separates the articles that can be sold and deposits the rest in a transference
point strategically located, where it will be picked up by another contractor or by
the city for its final disposal at the landfill.
“ Develop collaboration between the municipality and waste pickers; this repre-
sents a new attitude from the authorities in recognizing the importance of the
job, the informal sector does for the environment and for the city’s cleanliness.
This alternative also represents an economic advantage for the municipality,
because, less waste is taken to the landfills.
“ Promote association processes through especially designed courses for waste
pickers, with the purpose of converting them into a cooperative and offer them
opportunities to improve their technical and management techniques. This
would train recyclable material merchants in negotiating with recyclable materi-
als merchants, making them more efficient and competitive in their activity.
“ Develop activities such as workshops, campaigns, conferences, pamphlet distri-
bution, radio and TV programs, among others, with various sectors of the
population such as schools, businesses, offices and religious communities with
the goal of obtaining more participation in classifying recyclable material at its
origin, to convince people to give away their material to waste pickers.
“ Provide waste pickers with the necessary equipment for their jobs, including a
strategically located warehouses, where they can take their bags and classify
what they have picked up. Warehouse would be equipped with boxes to store
recyclables, showers, scales, and grinders, among others. These places can be
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 285

only materials warehouses and sites for buying and selling to the general public,
waste pickers and big recyclables buyers (intermediate gathering centers, with the
advantage of being nearer and permitting a greater possibility of negotiation,
because of the volumes and savings in transportation costs). The proposal is that,
these places be managed by the municipality’s Sanitation Department, social
groups or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and associations or waste
pickers’ unions.
“ NGOs involvement in the various activities of waste handling, as facilitators of
the informal sector, adding credibility to this sector’s role in the recovery of refuse.
“ Form a work group for selective picking, as a voluntary association of represen-
tatives from all levels of administration and from all important industries whose
materials are present in the total volume of domestic waste. This alternative is
represented in the opportunity of creating sinergies and scale economies when
cooperating at all levels with other administrations to solve problems and take
advantage of common opportunities.
“ Create a hybrid agency that takes on the tasks of handling municipal waste, as
property of the municipality but managed by experts dedicated to the learning and
innovation of new strategies; financed by municipal and outside funding institu-
tions, such as the World Bank and private foundations.
“ Training of community groups by NGOs to recycle industrial waste, which once
processed will be sold to the same company that provided the materials.
Once the separation of recyclables is done through the proposed alternatives, other
alternatives must be thoroughly explored for the handling and final disposal of solid
waste (such as incineration, conversion to biogas, conversion to fuel, conversion to
energy and compost).
A system to handle waste requires different approaches. Various studies Muttamara
et al. (1996), Ojeda (1999), Ojeda et al. (2000) mention that the environmental
awareness, added to finantial incentives and changes in legislation, are the strategies
that, combined, promote more efficiently the separation of recyclables at origin.
This paper proposes a flexible model in such a way that generators have the most
comfortable option of using recyclables in two ways: the economic benefit may be
for others, in this case the waste pickers; or for the generator himself, who will be
able to sell the recyclables directly obtaining an economic incentive, even though in
this last option he has to go to the recyclables buyback.
The proposed flexibility is important, because, the response to it from those
involved may vary greatly. For example, in a study by Hernández et al. (1999) whose
objective was to know why some families participated and others did not in a program
to separate recyclables with micro-businesses that collected and sold the recyclables
for the benefit of the community, it was found that the main limitation for good
performance of the program was of a financial type related to the one being benefited
by the sale of the recyclables. The families that did not separate refused to did so,
because, they did not agree with the fact that the economic benefit was not for
themselves, while the families that did separate were in favor of giving the funds for
the participating micro-businesses.
286 S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288

Foregoing personal income is a diffı́cult attitude to promote. The final objective

of the recycling programs must be clarified. If the objective is to reduce the amount
of waste disposed of at a landfill, then it is not important if the recycling is done by
micro-businesses or by waste pickers (Hernández et al., 1999).
Mexicali’s waste pickers could be trained and mainstreamed into the formal
system of waste recovery. In this sense Bartone (1999) mentions some cases in
which the informal groups have been organized at landfills and/or open air dumps;
they are trained and are given counseling to form recycling cooperatives, as in
Manila (Filipinas), Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), and Cali (Colombia). Like in El Cairo,
they are put in charge of collection, transportation, recycling and disposal of waste.
Blight and Mbande (1996) propose that a possible solution to solve the problem
of interference in the activities of waste pickers at a landfill could be intermediate
collection sites near the source of the waste or having an intermediate area in the
landfill. In either case, as mentioned by the author, waste picking must be allowed
in an intermediate site under supervision, to safeguard the health and security of the
waste pickers.
Taylor (1999) mentions that community-based and NGO have to participate and
get involved in improving municipal solid waste source separation, recycling and/or
overall waste collection and disposal activities. Community members can often be
more influential in effecting improved municipal solid waste management if they act
collectively through community-based organizations than if they act as individual
Among the proposed strategies is the participation of NGOs. In the municipality
of Mexicali this would be something new, since, even though this kind of groups
exists, they have not been involved in waste handling issues. Therefore, integration
and awareness activities for NGOs will also be required, so that they begin
involving themselves in waste handling matters.
All change requires effort, time and solutions to potential conflicts derived from
the proposed changes. The strategies presented here will not be the exception.
Taylor (1999) identified some of the conflicts that could arise while trying to
develop work collaborations between the informal sector, public sector and formal
sector: (1) some parties will question the legitimacy of other actors, particularly that
of the informal sector; (2) businesses recently privatized work under pressure to
deliver fast and profitable results. This limits the possibilities of exploring collabo-
ration relations with members of the informal sector, community based organiza-
tions (CBOs) and NGOs; (3) Members of the informal sector may refuse to make
formal arrangements with the rest of the parties to comply with registration and
commercial and legal requirements, since, on occasion, they have felt that this limits
or restricts them in some way.

5. Conclusions

In the case of Mexicali, Mexico the proposal presented in this paper is feasible,
but, it is also necessary to perform studies to quantify the contribution of the
informal sector regarding the recovery of recyclables.
S. Ojeda-Benitez et al. / Resources, Conser6ation and Recycling 34 (2002) 273–288 287

For Mexicali’s solid waste management system to function and be efficient, it

must comply with the following.
“ Involve the locals in the search for solutions to the main problems related to
trash collection and recycling.
“ The public sector must provide solid waste infrastructure and information not
only to sponsor but also to encourage independient initiatives led by many
sectors of the city.
“ Recognize the role of the informal sector in recyclables separation, because, if
this sector is not present, no other part of the system will consider the separation
of this waste, thereby demishing the importance of the informal sector.
“ Mexicali’s initiatives must be oriented towards the generation of policies and
programs that minimize waste generation on the long term. In the short term,
Mexicali must develop recovery programs to deviate trash from final disposal,
reducing the volumes of waste disposed at its landfill, transforming it into
another material deeper within the productive process that originated it.
“ Waste pickers cannot be eliminated or ignored. In each case a solution must be
found to recognize their presence and maximize their role, allowing them to
work in such a way that the operation of the landfill will not be jeopardized.
“ NGOs and CBOs must get involved in Mexicali’s solid waste management. Their
participation will create bridges between the various parties involved in manag-
ing such solid waste.


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