Mexico City’s Tsunami Of Plastic, A Metaphor For Climate Complacency

The streets of Mexico's capital are littered with plastic and styrofoam, the constant remnants of an irresponsible culture of consumption, an essayist writes. If we can't change simple habits only we can control, no summit or government in

A Mexico City street littered with trash
A Mexico City street littered with trash
Alidad Vassigh*


MEXICO CITY â€" I arrived in Mexico for an extended stay just after the arrest of the country's notorious drug kingpin El Chapo. But what strikes me every time I come to this sprawling and colorful capital is something much more mundane, though no less insidious, than narcotics trafficking: plastic.

In Mexico City, every little thing seems to come in or on plastic. Water â€" because nobody drinks it from the tap â€" comes in bottles of varying sizes, some thankfully reusable through delivery services. You want a coffee at a stall or a Starbucks-style cafe? That will come in a plastic cup or at least with the plastic caps they insist on fitting onto cups. You can ask for a mug, but after many visits to Mexico City, I know this often prompts a raised eyebrow and a glance that seems to ask "Why are you being awkward?" Orange juice? It will come in a big plastic cup with a top and a (fun) straw. Or for the foul, sugary version, expect to find it in the ubiquitous Tetra Pak packaging. Sandwich? Wrapped in plastic. Even croissants for breakfast are very often presented this way.

It's not unusual to see a range of lunchtime foods for office workers already placed on styrofoam platters and sealed over with foil or cling wrap. Styrofoam, of course, is plastic's ugly cousin. Many taco stands serve this favorite street fare on plates wrapped in plastic bags that are then unwrapped and thrown out. In Iran, there is a metaphor for the utterly unpalatable: snake's poison (zahr-e maar). A family meal, for example, could become "snake poison" after a vicious argument at the table. In Mexico City, even that would come on a plastic platter.

The supermarket checkout is another flash point. Before you've even taken your wallet out to pay the cashier, the baggers have already stuffed your purchases into one or two or three thin plastic bags. You have to bellow "no bag, please," and then suffer a number of awkward glances from various angles. It's worse than that, actually, because the baggers are unsalaried, earning their living exclusively from shoppers' tips.

Multiply these consumptions by millions daily. Millions of residents drinking and eating from plastic containers, which are wrapped in bags and wrappers that are all tossed within seconds or minutes. The volume of plastic and synthetic trash in Mexico City is monumental. Unlike cities in Europe, there are no street containers for recycling glass, cans, plastic and paper. You can take cans to places you will have to find yourself, where metals are bought by weight. Needless to say, few people do that.

Paris, another city I know well, closed a terrible 2015 of terrorist attacks and rising unemployment with the apparent "good news" of an international accord at the COP21 global climate summit. But my doubts only multiply as I stroll through Mexico City. The quantity of trash generated in this city of some 20 million every day shows a clear, yawning gap between the summit's happy story line of abstract signatures and the reality of life here.

I imagine some are waiting to see results after Paris. Waiting for governments to announce this or decide that, or make more vacuous declarations that soon fall by the wayside like the mountains of plastic wrappers all over Mexico City streets. But is there anything stopping people from doing something about pollution, like now? Just a small change in habit or two â€" whatever your precious convenience can manage â€" to reduce your footprint?

I noticed that the city had removed many of the garbage bins that could be intermittently found in public spaces, perhaps because they overflowed, given the crazy discrepancy between their size and all the trash not thrown, but stuffed, into them. Presumably these were designed some time in the 20th century for the odd Kleenex or maybe an apple core, not a tsunami of styrofoam. You might as well throw your trash onto the pavement, as many do.

Perhaps the plastic that litters the streets of Mexico City will eventually do some good. I personally see no problem with litter on the street. We live in a polluted environment and people should see the pollution they generate. Indeed, the depressing sight of litter may remind people that there is a major environmental problem and they are causing it. Though most will likely veer toward disposal as a solution to trash. If millions of tons are buried somewhere outside the city, or far from where people live â€" like out in the oceans â€" well, where is the problem? See no evil, hear no evil.

More depressing than Mexico City's plastic mountains and the market system that favors monumental use of this cheap commodity in an oil-producing country is the the public's apparent indifference to all this. It's not like we've all been starved of information about the environment. For 30 years now we have been showered with facts and figures, dire predictions even. Yet our collective response hovers between paralysis and a deep determination to look away. Call it environmental fatigue.

Where is the hardship in using a plastic bag 20 or 30 times (which I do), or paying 10, 20 or 50 cents for it? Or changing your food shopping habits, a little at least? Like eating less meat when reports concur it is practically as harmful as driving a car? Just a little, enough to send market signals that there is demand for change. Waiting for governments to act is not just complacent but also reeks of hypocrisy. Is shopping not like voting, and supermarkets a meeting point between individuals and corporate interest? Picking this item over that one, saying no to plastic bags, reading the labels and refusing to reward companies that poison the world with your complicity is a democratic and immediate form of exercising power.

And if you're not willing to do that, no summit can save us.

*Alidad Vassigh is a Madrid-based writer and translator. He was born in Tehran, educated in France and England, and moves about frequently between Madrid, Mexico City and Bogotá until he decides where to settle.

This is Worldcrunch"s uniquely international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble street in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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