More people, more garbage: Puerto is developing too fast to handle the problem

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Growth is “out of control” in Puerto Escondido as local infrastructure is incapable of handling a growing amount of waste, especially plastics, that the rapidly growing population is creating.

And the problem is compounded by a lack of funds at the municipal level to dedicate to the infrastructure required for trash collection and disposal and other services.

However, many local non-governmental organizations are stepping up to fill the gap.

One of those is Comunidad Nit, a recyclable waste collection center in Puerto Escondido that is part of Suema, a larger initiative that started in Mexico City.

Director Jahir Mojica says they saw Oaxaca as a place that needed and deserved infrastructure to handle the waste problem. “Specifically, Puerto Escondido is a key point because it’s developing too fast, faster than it can handle the problem.”

Jahir Mojica of Comunidad Nit
Jahir Mojica of Comunidad Nit: ‘Puerto Escondido is developing faster than it can handle the problem.’

Comunidad Nit has four recycling points in different areas (at the Agencia Municipal, at the end of Calle del Morro in Zicatela, on Avenida Oaxaca and at the Agencia Municipal in Chila) and also works with local businesses, encouraging them to separate and recycle their trash. They even provide them with materials, organization tips, and instructions.

Establishments that do the job well are awarded a plaque to show that they are businesses that recycle. Hotel Bungalows Zicatela and Cafe Dan are two that have earned the honor.

Another focus of the organization is reusing recycled materials. Comunidad Nit has its own machines to create “plastimadera,” planks that are similar in shape and function to wood, but made completely made of recycled plastic. The group also creates and sells unique furniture from recycled materials.

Comunidad Nit is not a government-funded organization. “We haven’t received government support,” says Mojica. “Rather, we collaborate on certain occasions. Currently, we are collaborating with San Pedro Mixtepec. They are lending us land in Bajos de Chila for our larger recycling center.”

The center will be used to compact different recyclable materials for shipment to large recycling plants outside the region.

But Puerto represents a challenge due to extreme growth in a short period of time and it faces urgent problems as a result.

“It’s out of control . . . Every square centimeter in Puerto Escondido is being built on. The municipality can’t control it all. In certain areas, lots are being sold without authorization. So, there are more neighborhoods without waste management. They’ll end up creating makeshift areas to leave trash. Or they’ll burn it.”

Burning is a way that many areas without access to waste collection dispose of their trash. However, burning plastic contaminates the air and the residue forms microplastics that end up in the oceans. Makeshift landfills are no better. With the rains, that trash finds its way to the oceans as well.

An even larger problem facing Puerto is the city’s “official” landfill. A sprawling mound of trash can be found on a hill on the outskirts of Puerto. It’s open air and doesn’t have any true sanitation process, making it a prime point of infection and contamination.

Mojica recognizes the danger of this type of landfill, noting, “There are two ways [this landfill] will contaminate the oceans. One is the air. There are many air currents that carry lightweight plastics to the ocean. Another is water. When it rains, everything that isn’t covered, little by little, makes its way to the ocean.”

Ground-up plastic is fed into this machine to create 'plastimadera.'
Ground-up plastic is fed into this machine to create ‘plastimadera.’

And an important focus for Communidad Nit (the name is Zapotec for water) is protecting the oceans.

Although the government isn’t keeping up with many of the city’s basic needs, Mojica notes that many residents and visitors are making an effort when it comes to doing their part: “The community is multicultural, which is good news for recycling efforts. People are coming here with more consciousness about recycling . . . The community is more active and participatory in the last two years.”

And while there has been a recent rise in awareness of the issues, one organization has been working on Puerto’s plastic problem for almost a decade.

Jesús Omar Castaneyra Matus is the founder of Jungla Plástica A.C., which he started nine years ago. After living for a period in France, he couldn’t get the idea of recycling out of his mind. Knowing that the plastic ends up in the oceans, he wanted to do something to help.

Castaneyra says the needs of the community are overwhelming. “We currently pick up [recyclable material] from 250-270 houses, restaurants, businesses, and other establishments. There isn’t another organization here that’s doing this many pickups around town.”

Convenience is a huge issue with recycling in Mexico. When it comes to trash, you just simply leave it on the sidewalk and it’s collected. However, if you recycle, you’ll have to take it somewhere else and some people just don’t want to deal with these extra steps. Making recycling easier is a big part of the issue.

Castaneyra acknowledges an important point. “The municipality hasn’t done anything to help the initiative. We do more than just pickups as well. We also educate the people in the communities on how to separate their trash and where to take their recyclables.”

However, Jungla Plástica has recently hit a wall. With fewer volunteers, it’s becoming more difficult to maintain the project. “I had a bit of a crisis the past couple of months with Jungla. I know I have to continue the work, but I need a break,” Castaneyra told El Sol de Puerto.

For that reason, the organization is stopping pickups for the next two months. It will be a time to rest, recharge, and most importantly, find funds and volunteers to keep the project running, Castaneyra said.

“It’s time to ask for help.”

Comunidad Nit’s Mojica listed some of the most urgent issues that need to be addressed: “If a new building site is going to be approved, or a hotel, they need to be sure that it’s done in accordance with the sanitation regulations — that means trash pickup and sewage disposal. This has to be controlled. New construction shouldn’t be approved without sufficient basic services that make sure they’re not going to contaminate the environment further. This is urgent. Also, investing in waste pickup for all areas of the community. If not, more makeshift landfills or burning of waste will be happening. [Another urgent issue is] fixing the current city landfill. It should meet the sanitation rules by having a sanitation plant. And, finally, more support for a circular economy, by encouraging citizens and businesses to consume reusable materials and recycle.”

Even though it can feel like an uphill battle, both Mojica and Castaneyra believe deeply in the cause and the changes that can be made for a sustainable future in Puerto.

Says the former with optimism, “I believe in people and innovation.”

El Sol de Puerto


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