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For Mexico Nonprofit, It's Garbage In, Handbags Out

Latin America: Ecology group turns refuse into fashion to show how to recycle and also provide trash pickers with jobs.


MEXICO CITY — In a run-down apartment complex, the head of a tiny nonprofit organization sews messenger bags, slick evening purses and trendy satchels bound for the United States.

The products are more than fashion statements. They are a statement about how Mexico should handle its garbage.

BIO, a 12-year-old environment advocacy group here, makes the slick and sturdy black bags from inner tubes taken out of damaged truck tires in Mexico City. The activists want to show that materials can be recycled into useful, even beautiful, objects.

BIO also hopes the bag business--called Vulcania, a play on a Spanish word for tire shops--can grow big enough to provide jobs for some of Mexico City's poorest families, including those who live and work in the city's garbage dumps.

"These are real quality bags that may be of appeal to a wide variety of people. Greens will like them. Punks who like black will like them. Messengers and other workers who need rough-and-tumble bags want them," said BIO leader Arturo Buenrostro. "At the same time, we can create better work conditions for people."

Those Living Off Dumps Lack Utilities, Get Sick

The garbage pickers, or pepenadores, are well known in Mexico and other Latin American countries. They live in the dumps without running water and little electricity and often suffer from diseases, according to researchers.

Making only a few dollars a day, they dig through the stinking mounds for glass, rags, copper and other metals, plastics and electrical appliances, even those that don't work.

Buenrostro believes the pepenadores are exploited by their employers. The bosses receive money from both private companies dumping in the city-owned landfill and from the pickers, who pay small amounts to sell what they collect.

"In the end," he said, "the pepenadores don't know that there are other ways to live, to make money."

Buenrostro believes private companies should handle the trash and charge residents by the can so they are encouraged to recycle. Additional recycling should be handled by gloved, salaried employees, not bands of ragtag pickers living in substandard conditions, he argues.

Currently, unionized city employees collect the trash in Mexico City. The city does not charge the residents for pickup.

Mexico City's urban services director, Francisco Gonzalez, says critics are just out to take profits away from the pepenadores, who he says increase the amount of garbage recycled. Groups such as BIO "want to get rid of the pepenadores so they themselves can benefit," he said.

Gonzalez said the municipal system, which processes 4.5 million tons of garbage a year, is about 66% cheaper than using private firms. He said between 10% and 20% of the garbage is recycled.

"We have a system that works; why change it?" he said.

'There Are Some Bad Smells'

Cuauhtemoc Gutierrez, a Mexico City councilman, leads a group of about 1,800 pepenadores. His spokesman, Alejandro Enriquez, said there is no reason to uproot the pickers.

"This has been going on for years. It is part of the society here," Enriquez said. "They have their own houses; they live well, even though there are some bad smells. The nonprofits have incorrect impressions of the way they live and work."

Although the pepenadores are reluctant to give up the work they have, Buenrostro and his supporters believe that they might enjoy a cleaner line of employment.

Once more money comes into BIO through bag sales, Buenrostro hopes to recruit and pay pepenadores or other low-income workers to make them. Currently, Buenrostro and a tailor who doubles as a restaurant worker do the sewing.

"BIO has a mission that can really help people without many resources. From garbage, they learn they can make things that have value," said Patricio Lugo, spokesman for Fundacion Nemi, which invites BIO to give workshops as part of the foundation's goal of providing alternate education to young people. "Garbage is not garbage. It can be more."

The workshops are not just about inner tubes. Hangers and newspaper become baskets. Nylon stockings and supermarket plastic bags are woven into purses. Plastic bottles are cut into wine cups, and colored bottles are shaved into drinking glasses.

But BIO's signature product is the black rubber bag that its members, who now number about two dozen, hope will create a name for their group in the United States. Some models are all black, others are decorated with indigenous cloth straps, beads, metal ornaments and colored bands. They include backpacks, shoulder bags, doctor's bags and triangular purses.

Group's Leader Sold 3,000 Bags in U.S.

BIO and those who sell similar products agree that it will be an uphill battle to get them into U.S. stores.

Driving a 1983 Volkswagen van, Buenrostro tooled around the U.S.--limiting himself mostly to the Southeast and Midwest after the van broke down--to seek out retailers and sold 3,000 bags over a year. He returned late last month.

Although BIO lacks money to promote its products, he hopes trips to California and other Western states will create an international market. The group presents its goods on a Web site:

There are few American companies that make bags and products from inner tubes, said Rob Brandegee, president and co-founder of one of the companies, Pittsburgh-based Little Earth.

The market for recycled products "is pretty thin and tight. It's all about marketing," said Brandegee, who maintains 3,000 accounts, mostly with boutiques. Larger stores such as Macy's dropped his products because "they were not a big hit."

"It is not enough to have a good idea and have your heart in the right place," he said. "But it is not hopeless. [BIO] just needs to partner with someone who wants to move their products."

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