One of the world's largest landfills closed its doors last month, writes Elisabeth Malkin, amidst ambitious and controversial plans to modernize waste disposal in Mexico City.
The landfill, Bordo Poniente, is at the center of a raging controversy over how Mexico deals with its garbage. Officials, including Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, intend to streamline collection and sorting, and outsource to landfills located beyond the city's walls. But there is a long-running tradition of independent trash pickers, or pepenadores, sifting through the garbage by hand to reclaim what little of it can be sold for recycling. According to Malkin, "In the old days, politicians counted on the trash pickers as a base of support. They would help swell campaign crowds, wave flags for visiting dignitaries or even provide pro-government shock troops to attack opposition protests."
While pepenadores don't hold the kind of political sway they used to, they were able to secure a promise from Ebrard last year not to completely shut down Bordo Poniente. Though the landfill has been closed, garbage is still brought to the site's separation plant, where the trash pickers may sort through it before it is loaded up again and hauled off to another dump.
Mexican sociologist Héctor Castillo Berthier estimates that roughly a quarter of a million people depend on the existing system, and any radical change to that system is bound to disrupt their livelihood.