Tracking Trash

Collaborators: Antonio Casalduc, Cynthia Deng, Ngoc Doan, Omar Valentin
Harvard GSD // Mexican Cities Initiative Fellowship // Summer 2017

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Tracking Trash


Our team was among the recipients of the Mexican Cities Initiative Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to investigate waste networks in Mexico City. During our fellowship period in the summer of 2017, we interviewed and shadowed many individuals across the spectrum of formality, ranging from government officials to scavengers, and began to trace their daily trajectories through the city, tracking networks formed through the exchange of waste materials.

Mexico City produces waste at a rate of 12,930 tons a day -- where does all of it go, and how? This deceptively simple question has no direct and simple answer. Behind the daily processing of all that waste is a vast urban network comprised of thousands of individuals, institutions, organizations, and infrastructure systems. Investigating this network calls to question the definition of “waste,” and the nature of usefulness, worth and obsolescence in objects. Waste, as it turns out, is also highly symptomatic of a city’s social and political stratification, as well as its cultural value systems. If “you are what you eat” is true for people, then cities are what cities waste.

In Mexico City, the boundaries of responsibility, legality and formality in the world of trash collection are highly blurred. The formal, government-led side of Mexico City’s waste infrastructure is heavily dependent on a network of pepenadores, machetes, basureros and other informal workers whose livelihoods revolve around sorting, collecting, and selling waste. These individuals carry out their work in grey zones of legality, not on government payroll, but often engaged in an exchange of labor or goods for government actors. Hence, informal workers are rendered entirely invisible in public policies, as well as any government data or official maps on the waste collection network of Mexico City. The ensuing legal and financial precarity that the individuals find themselves in compounds the many health and safety risks, vulnerability to exploitation, and stigma associated with waste workers. As such, their invisibility amounts to the violation of many of their human rights.

Writing featured in Log 40, published Spring/Summer 2017.