Somewhere in Jalisco, a lonely mom-and-pop grocer puts a homemade sign on his rack of Gansitos and Bubulubus.
“To reduce the impact of environmental pollution, we are reducing the use of straws and plastic bags.” Next to it, he posts something slightly more authoritative – a newspaper page with the headline: “As of today [February 19], these plastics are prohibited in Jalisco.”
“What I’m hoping for is some government official to say something, to give me a document or something with a seal,” he laments, pointing out that some customers have shown irritation when they don’t receive “bolsitas” (plastic bags). And he doesn’t know if he can be fined for not providing fabric or paper bags.
The grocer and the newspaper are referring to an anti-plastic law passed in Jalisco in 2018, although they may have been misinformed about its effective date. (Some sources say it doesn’t come into effect until January, 2020, when fines could be given, while others say it came into effect in October.) Still, the grocer’s story, along with the abundant anti-plastic laws passed in Jalisco — and in the states of Veracruz, Querétaro, Nuevo León, Sonora, Ciudad de México, Oaxaca and Baja California Sur – illustrate that the desire to curtail plastics is strong in many quarters, while practical steps to implement the laws often falter.
Halting progress in carrying out laws that exist on paper is hardly unusual. However, if the rule around the world is that legislators and laws bask in glory while implementation of the laws is beset with stumbling blocks, nowhere does this formula seem more formulaic than here in Mexico, where mistrust of the government is high, making environmental-protection laws seem intrusive. In addition, “modern conveniences” such as plastics have somehow become ingrained—witness the used plastic bags blowing around every street—even though in reality they are relatively new. Just 40 years ago, señoras routinely went shopping with baskets and bags of ixtle fiber.
One problem in implementing anti-plastic laws, according to Karen Sandoval, environmental director of Casa CEM, a Guadalajara advocacy group, is that a scientific basis for the laws is still wanting.
“If we only prohibit plastic, it is not going to be easy…we still lack a lot of work: diagnostics and education of businesses and the public.” Her organization does all this, “but we are only 11 people here,” including a volunteer from Germany and an investigative team.
“A lot of people know that plastic pollutes, that turtles die in the sea because of straws, but the sea is far away, and we need to understand how what we do at home affects the sea.”
Some critics say that the Jalisco secretariats – Environment and Development (Semadet); Innovation, Science and Technology (Sicyt) and Economic Development (Sedeco) – that are responsible for implementing the 2018 law have dragged their feet in elaborating guidelines for the technical norms and regulations that Congress must approve and without which any law is an empty vessel. And plastic producers, including a large one located in Arandas, Jalisco, while eager for the government to produce regulations to guide them, also say that rules merely at the state and municipal level will make compliance impossible, and they are asking for national norms.
Plastic reduction is further clouded by certain practical and technical impediments that are coming to light.
For example, while the 2018 Jalisco anti-plastic law mandates that many plastics must be replaced by biodegradable forms, Greg Lechuga, sales manager at Pituche, a Guadalajara company selling packages that are alternatives to plastic, notes that plastic bags that are called “oxo-biodegradable” (biodegradable in the presence of oxygen) are not a solution.
“The law is 100 percent good,” he emphasizes, while noting that “those ‘oxo-biodegradable’ bags are converted into sand that is not fertile.”
Similarly, a spokesman for an association of plastic bag producers, Inboplast, notes that not only do his 50 members manufacture 70 percent of the bags consumed in Mexico and as well as a very large amount for export, they provide 80,000 jobs. Moreover, and more relevant to plastic reduction, plastic bags only account for one percent of throwaway plastic, making the industry a poor target for the control of plastics. (Environmentalists, however, might counter that plastics are a big industry in Mexico because of lax environmental regulations here, or point to recent news about a dead whale found with many plastic bags in its stomach.)
However, besides calling for norms to advance implementation of the anti-plastic laws, industrial groups have already contributed to some reduction of plastic.
For example, in 2018, Cooperativa Pascual stopped including straws in its drink packaging and initiated a campaign “Mexico Lindo y Querido 2018” (Mexico beautiful and beloved) and a restaurant association in Jalisco, Canirac, began an effort to reduce the use of straws in restaurants, evidenced by table placards urging diners to “Di no al popote” (Say no to straws). The program resulted in a 60-percent reduction in plastic straw use, said a Canirac spokesman.
Other industry leaders point out that Jalisco is a leader in the recycling of polyethylene (PET, used for soda and water bottles) and that the plastics plant in Arandas is the largest in Latin America using recycled PET.
Yet industry leaders sometimes deride laws already passed. The city of Querértaro, for example, passed an anti-plastics law for which fines from 4,000 to 300,000 pesos are already in place. The city’s mayor has vocally supported the law and threatened businesses that do not comply. Yet even this city’s law has been criticized for not solving the problem.
Until government authorities encourage and prod merchants and their customers and reach an understanding with industries, significant plastic reduction in Mexico may remain elusive.