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Tracking Trash

Tracking Trash: Formal and Informal Waste Networks in Mexico City

Antonio CasalducCynthia Deng | Elif Erez | Ngoc Doan | Omar Valentín

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 answer. Behind the daily processing of all of 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 cultural value systems. If “you are what you eat” is true for people, then cities are what cities waste.

This project investigated Mexico City’s formal and informal waste systems with the goals of (1) discovering gaps and areas of opportunity in the current waste flows and, (2) highlighting the critical importance of informal workers in the trash economy.

During the fellowship period, the team interviewed and shadowed many individuals across the spectrum of formality, ranging from government officials to independent scavengers, to document some of the livelihoods of people who power the city’s complex waste networks. Through conversations, visits, and drawings, they traced these actors’ daily trajectories through the city relative to material value changes, legal boundaries, and human rights issues. “We believe that this knowledge and recognition can point us towards more resilient strategies for the management of the trash flows in Mexico City in ways that are not only environmentally sustainable but also socially and economically equitable.” See their project website here.

The Tracking Trash team completed their research in the summer of 2017. They published an article in the Harvard Urban Forum, After Trash: The Not-So-Brief and Wondrous Life of a Plastic Toy, describing their MCI research and findings. In addition, their short video, Tracking Trash CDMX, provides an overview of their travels and findings.


Also see Tracking Trash CDMX: The Journey for a peek behind the scenes!


Tracking Track final presentation:

Additional academic work stemming from the Tracking Trash project: