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The Great Mexican Gum Gambit: Capital City Cleans Up

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- In the endless struggle against the forces of litter, street cleaner Gabriela Ibarra fights her battle one piece of discarded bubble gum at a time.

She bends to her task, first softening the spent blob with a jet of steam, then scouring the goo with a zap of chemical spray, before finally vacuuming the chewed wad from the pavement. How many pieces of gray gum pock the sidewalks of one of the world's largest, dirtiest, gummiest cities?

You might as well ask "how many stars are there in the sky," said Ricardo Jaral Fernández, the city government's executive coordinator for the conservation of public spaces. The answer is a lot.

"In some locations, such as the exits of the subway? We have counted hundreds of pieces of chewing gum per square meter. However, we believe the average is 70, more or less." How long has some of the gum adhered to the walkways of the old city? Perhaps since the invention of modern chewing gum -- in the late 1800s.

But Jaral vows: No more!

Jaral and his gum-busters will embark next month on a great urban experiment. They are going to attempt to scrub clean the central historic district of Mexico City, the beating heart not only of the capital but also the republic; the dense, sooty, magnificent downtown core includes the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, hundreds of architecturally significant buildings, the ruins of a major Aztec temple destroyed by the conquistador Hernán Cortés, warrens of shops, apartments, hotels, cantinas and the Zocolo, the second-largest public square in the world, which can hold more than 100,000 people.

Starting Feb. 1, not only is the city going to clean the sidewalks and streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but officials vow to keep it clean -- "100 percent clean" -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And if Jaral has his way, he is also going to figure out how to reshape the civic consciousness of fellow Mexicans.

"We are going to see if we can convince them to use the trash cans," said Jaral, who dreams of tidy bins emblazoned with the slogan: "Do you love El Centro? Then show it!"

The cleanup of the historic center is one element of a greater environmental struggle being waged in Mexico City. The capital and its surrounding metropolis, home to 20 million people, is in danger of being buried in its own garbage. The city's enormous Bordo Poniente dump, which produces 15 percent of the area's greenhouse gas emissions, is scheduled to be closed this year. Meanwhile, the municipal government is threatening to enforce its own recycling laws. By now, according to city planners, three-quarters of the residents of Mexico City should be separating household waste for recycling. Today, fewer than 10 percent of the people in the capital do so.

"I believe the cleaning and the renovation of the central historic district could be a model for how we learn to use and share the public space," said Héctor Castillo Berthier, an urban anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has been studying garbage for more than 30 years. Castillo explained that while most residents of the capital keep their own space tidy -- the city awakes each morning to scrub the polluted grime from its collective windshield -- they may not always take the same care in parks, markets and streets.

"People think, hey, I'm paying taxes to someone, somewhere, so maybe the government should do its job and pick up the trash," Castillo said.

To clean the historic center, Jaral will deploy 700 workers, including 530 street cleaners, who will empty each of the new 1,200 trash cans not once, not twice, but 11 times a day. They will manually sweep the streets and sidewalks eight times a day. They plan to clean with soap and water the area around the trash cans once a day. Jaral's street cleaners will operate in an area slightly larger than a square mile.

The deployment of so many trash cans on Mexico City streets is itself a phenomenon, and part of the experiment. "What strikes a lot of visitors is the lack of garbage cans, compared to a city such as New York, where they're everywhere," said David Lida, author of the book "First Stop in the New World," a street-level panorama of contemporary Mexico City. "For example, here you blow your nose and look for a place to put the tissue. You could walk for block and blocks, if not for miles, before you find a waste can. So what are you supposed to do with your trash? It is an extremely important question."

Francisco Padrón Gil, director of the Mexican Initiative for Conservation and Learning, said the project in the center of Mexico City "could be a great way to teach people about consumption, recycling and reduction." He said that many municipal governments in Mexico are finding themselves overwhelmed by their trash but that awareness of the waste stream is not a popular topic. "The city center is a good place to change our relationship to garbage," Padrón said, "and in the historic center of Mexico, you would be telling people why it is important that they are keeping their country clean. It is one way to build a better society."

Lida said, "I don't think people are stupid. They are practical. There is not much of a civic culture here. But there is one. If given enough trash cans, I think the people of Mexico City will start to use them."

Jaral has thought about this. "The city that is cleanest," he said, "is not the city that is swept most often, but the one that is clean to begin with. The hardest job is to give people an understanding of the cost of keeping the center clean. And I'm not just talking about the economic cost, but about the great number of people who must work so hard to clean such a small area."

Of all the litter that is tossed around his beloved historic district -- the grease from food venders, the plastic wrappers from a million bags of chips -- it is chewing gum that gives Jaral and his crew the fits. "It is the worst," he said. It is impossible to sweep, because it glues itself to the sidewalk, "where it just sits. Then it becomes filthy dirty. It is a laboratory of bacteria."

To remove the gum from the sidewalks, the city purchased 10 new $5,000 deep-cleaning machines that combine steam and cleaning chemicals. Jaral estimates that each piece of gum requires at least 10 seconds to remove. With time allotted for crews to search and destroy the gobs, Jaral figures each machine might be able to vacuum 1,200 pieces of gum in an eight-hour shift. How long will it take to scrub the streets free of gum? Forever, Jaral says, "because new gum is always being added, unless we break the cycle."

Toward that end, Jaral shocked the city when he told reporters earlier that chewers should just swallow their gum rather than spit it out. Gastroenterologists warned against the strategy. Now Jaral is thinking about a pilot program that would let gum-smackers exchange their chewed piece for a fresh one, maybe as part of a short-term educational effort. But Jaral is not sure, as this could simply leave him and his street cleaners with more gum to steam and scrape.

"What people do not realize, and what we will try to teach them, is that it costs five times as much to remove the gum from the sidewalk as it does to purchase the gum," Jaral said. "This is a lesson that surprised even me."

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