By Jorge Tadeo Vargas, Rising Tide Mexico, member of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
In the past two years, waste management within the CDM in Mexico has been gaining greater importance than any other carbon market project type. However, this has not benefited the most vulnerable communities. On the contrary, projects have undermined community level waste management and threatened recyclers’ livelihoods. Landfills have been closed and waste used as alternative fuel in cement plants and co-processing for energy to gain access to the carbon market. This article looks at the impacts of these trends.
Mexican municipalities often do not have adequate waste management programs in place, as could be recycling centers and differentiated collection. This means that landfills have a limited lifespan at the end of which they become a deposit of exploitable landfill gas. This is where the CDM comes into play. When landfills are then sealed for biogas extraction and waste is incinerated, communities that make a living from collecting and recycling materials that can still be used lose their source of income. Authorities rarely provide support for reintegration. Sealing landfills to obtain biogas and the use of waste derived fuels also has significant impacts on communities’ health and environment. Not only are formal and informal recyclers often left without source of employment, they also have to live with the contamination of soils, watersheds and air caused by the incineration of waste and industrial waste mixtures. Other communities in Mexico are affected by the practice of co-processing waste in cement plants, which has been proved to have severe health impacts to people living nearby. The companies involved are promoting this practice as alternative to the use of fossil fuels and can thus benefit from the CDM to complement their income.
There are several solid waste CDM projects in the country, 14 landfillgas projects and 10 projects for the co-processing of waste in cement plants. Some projects are still at conception stage, but already have massive negative impacts such as the former landfill ‘Bordo Poniente’.
The Bordo Poniente landfill project, Mexico City
Until December 2011 the Bordo Poniente was the largest landfill in Latin America. Until its closure, it received a steady stream of twelve thousand tons of municipal solid waste daily. Four thousand tons were organic waste processed in the composting plant, where they became fertilizers for city parks. The other remaining eight tons went to the landfill where informal recyclers collected waste and materials that still had an opportunity to return to the market. This practice served more than 1500 families who lost their source of income with the closure of the landfill.
Without thinking of a more socially and environmentally adequate solution, the Government of Mexico City closed the Bordo Poniente to recover waste gas and is considering application for CDM support. This would directly benefit the company that wins the concession to operate the landfill gas recovery. This project on the former Bordo Poniente landfill is still underway and is expected to enter the CDM project cycle in the coming months, once a company has been contracted. A second project aims at using the furnaces of the transnational cement company CEMEX as final disposal site for the eight thousand tons of waste per day. The energy produced will be earmarked for industrial use. While project application is still pending under the CDM, the projects are already causing serious impacts. The decision to close the landfill was made without an alternative waste management plan underway and has resulted in a garbage crisis in the streets of the city and accumulated a debt for the final waste disposal in the cement plants at a charge of 300 Mexican Pesos (about 20 Euros) per ton of waste incinerated in their ovens.
Waste management has become a sort of game of hide and seek, looking for places to put the surplus that does not end up at CEMEX. This is causing serious impacts on other landfills in the City of Mexico and nearby municipalities. Current waste management practices fail to take the role played by wastepickers into account. Committing to a zero waste plan would be an alternative that would benefit both environment and people. Instead authorities placed their bet on a project that exploits biogas and incinerates waste, practices which have more negative impacts than benefits.
CEMEX and the CDM
In Mexico alone, CEMEX has three plants registered and seven more pending approval as CDM projects planning to manage waste derived fuels as alternative to fossil fuels. This practice has generated a number of negative impacts on nearby communities, such as health problems and damage to ecosystems. The chemical mixtures that are made in cement kilns become dangerous cocktails, containing dioxins and furanos and other toxic contaminants. While these projects are pending approval, the disposal of these wastes means business for the company. As both businesses and municipalities pay a fairly substantial amount for taking care of this waste, we can understand that the CDM is a cherry on their pie, which they use as makeup to camouflage the impacts that their practices are already causing. Resistance to these projects is growing as communities living nearby are organizing themselves to demand a halt to incineration or co-processing of waste in cement kilns.
Without benefits but high socio-environmental costs
When analysing all sectors involved in the CDM in Mexico we can see that the vast majority of implemented projects are industrial scale projects that do not generate benefits to local communities. Even worse, they are often highly harmful to them. The case of waste management projects is exemplary because it has two aspects that go together, closing the landfill for biogas extraction and incineration in cement kilns. Here the CDM serves only to greenwash practices that are highly polluting. There is no benefit to communities, which end up paying a high environmental and social cost. On top of this, the emission reductions achieved are minimal, to the extent of not representing a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.
‘Zero Waste Management Plans, strong public policies on incineration and community involvement is a real alternative that generates not only reductions in greenhouse gases, but also provides communities a decent life.’
GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 600 grassroots groups, non-governmental organisations, and individuals in over 93 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. www.no-burn.org