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Latin America & Caribbean

Recycling misery: How Coca-Cola profits from garbage collected by Mexican children

The company acknowledged child labor contributes to its Mexico City collection chain.
13 Mar 2017 – 07:19 PM EDT
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Mexico City - The three Herrera siblings are minors who help their parents make a living by collecting garbage.

They live with their parents in a cardboard and wooden house, with a dirt floor, surrounded by mountains of plastic waste and decomposing food in the Bordo of Xochiaca, a garbage dump outside Mexico City.

Every morning before dawn, Anely, 10, Gerardo, 9, and Erika, 8, walk from home to the dump to help their parents sort the garbage in search of plastic bottles.

They are part of a lucrative supply chain run by Coca-Cola and seven Mexican bottling companies.

The company is aware that children participate in the garbage collection. However, it does not appear that it has taken strict measures to avoid it, even though the company in principle opposes the direct or indirect use of child labor in its supply chains.

Jaime Camara, the president of PetStar, Coca-Cola of Mexico's largest recycling plant in the State of Mexico, did not deny the use of children to Univision during an interview at which a Coca Cola company media representative was also present.

Asked what he thought about the children and teenagers’ work in the garbage collection chain, Camara hesitated, lowered his voice, and admitted "some" kids might be caught up in the process. But he added that the company seeks "not to be involved when they are identified."

The company does not have a legal responsibility for the worker conditions because there is no direct contract with them, he pointed out. The paycheck is issued only in the name of a union leader, who is responsible for buying the waste from families like the Herreras, sources told Univision Investiga.

"I have to get up early and bring them because they are kids and they might pick up a lighter or something. It is dangerous, so that is why I am bringing them early, so they stay with me," Erica Herrera told Univision at her home next to the garbage dump.

They work out of a place they call the "camp," a wooden shack with an open doorway covered only by a curtain donated by a religious mission.

The children wait while their mother approaches the garbage trucks which deposit their loads at the dump. To lessen the danger of being cut with broken glass or a needle, Erica Herrera uses a wooden pole with a metal hook. When she has filled the bag, she returns to the camp, carrying it over her shoulder. There the children help her to classify the recyclables.

"It is a little difficult for me, because I have to go to work, and come back to take a look, to check they don't go near the trucks. Then again I go back to work, return and later bring them back [home], to feed them, help them get ready for school, and take them to classes," she said.

Child Labor

The garbage dump is controlled by several organizations that buy recyclables from collectors and sell them to PetStar, the world's largest Coca-Cola recycling facility.

The Petstar plant is owned by Coca-Cola of Mexico and the Mexican bottlers Arca Continental, Bepensa, Corporación del Fuerte, Corporación Rica, Embotelladora del Nayar and Embotelladora de Colima.

Testimonies obtained by Univision indicate that PetStar pays the collectors $0.05 per pound of plastic, the lowest price paid within its recyling network in the Mexico City metropolitan area, and far below what it pays to garbage truck workers or at sorting plants in other areas of the city.

Camara told Univision that this is because the material they collect in the Bordo of Xochiaca is dirty, devaluing its worth. "That dirt has a cost," he said.

At the garbage dump, about 500 families survive without electricity or drinking water. Neither the inhabitants nor the leaders of the collection teams said they know exactly how many children and adolescents work there, but on a visit Univision found dozens of them recycling garbage.

Neighbors fear that a child could get bitten by a rat or be buried by the trash as it is unloaded from the trucks, mostly picked up in Nezahualcoyotl, a large municipality of more than one million residents adjoining the Mexican capital.

As an example of their concern for the children, Camara mentioned a Community Child Development Center, where PetStar sponsors the dining room, located 20 minutes away from the dump.

The center serves 250 children of scavengers, known in Mexico as 'pepenadores,' residents of Chimalhuacan in the State of Mexico. None are child scavengers from the Bordo of Xochiaca garbage dump, according to local residents.

The bus ticket back and forth would cost "almost what I earn (in the entire day)," said Erica Herrera, whose children do not attend the center.

Several of the dump's residents suggested that the best way to prevent children working with their parents would be for PetStar to pay for transportation to the community center. Camara said the company had no plans to do that due to the distance involved. He added the community center was not designed to serve the people of Nezahualcoyotl.

A few blocks away from the center, Univision Investiga visited the Foundation for Educational Assistance (FAE), a more modest center that does not receive permanent help from any specific institution but does house scavenger children.

"For them [the collectors] to collect one, two or three kilos takes a whole day's work, from seven in the morning to six or seven at night," said FAE director, Rosalinda Trejo.

The collection network

A recycling plant truck picks up the used bottles from the garbage dump once a week to transport them to the PetStar plant in Toluca, capital of the State of Mexico, where 3,100 million plastic bottles are recycled every year.

The smell of soap permeates the interior of the PetStar plant. No one enters without complying with strict safety measures, such as the use of special shoes, a vest, goggles and ear protectors.

PetStar's plastic collection network commences five miles away from the Bordo of Xochiaca dump, in the bustling streets of the Mexican capital, a city where 13,000 tons of garbage are generated daily.

In Mexico City, the law prohibits the sale of solid waste collected in the streets and at garbage dumps.

Not counting the truck drivers, about 10,000 people regarded by the Mexico City government as "volunteers" are involved in the garbage collection.

In practice, they are informal workers who operate under the orders of the truck drivers.

As income, they receive tips from ordinary citizens when they collect garbage from their residences. To the rhythm of ranchera music on the radio, the volunteers separate the recyclable materials from garbage. At the end of the day, they sell what they collected.

“Picking up the piles [of street garbage] is the hardest work ... There is everything mixed there: organic waste, dust, stones," said Omar Ruiz, a volunteer in a garbage truck, who allowed Univision Investiga to accompany him on his work route.

Ruiz wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to go to work. He separates garbage from recyclables without gloves or protection. "I do not feel comfortable with the gloves," he explained.

The "volunteers" have no medical insurance. If they suffer an accident, they must cover expenses themselves.

"If one of my men cuts himself, I have to take him to the doctor. I have to pay expenses because they work for me. If I don't pay, the boys don't come back to work anymore," said a truck driver who requested anonymity.

The garbage trucks are controlled by the "Unique Union of Workers" an entity of the Mexico City government. Several employees told Univision, also on condition of anonymity, that only by paying bribes to union leaders is it possible to get a job, a promotion or drive a new truck.

The current cost of a bribe for a new truck is $5,000 cash, according to several drivers.

At the end of the day, Ruiz and his colleagues take the plastic to a collection center, where they are paid $5 for a bag containing an average of 1,400 plastic bottles. Daniel Macias, owner of the center, then sells the merchandise to a supplier of Imer, the first Coca-Cola recycling plant in Mexico, inaugurated in 2002.

Imer is property of Coca-Cola Mexico and FEMSA, the biggest Coca-Cola bottling company in the world.

"Certainly the merchandise is cheap and the labor force is cheap, because most of us are volunteers and we make a living according to how much we collect," said Macias.

In 2016, the Mexicio City Human Rights Commission issued a stern recommendation to local authorities, citing the unhealthy and dangerous conditions in which garbage collectors work. The authorities accepted the recommendations, but conditions remain the same, according to Univison's observations.

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"Informality, irregularity, even clandestinity of some aspects of the process, make certain groups (of garbage collectors) more vulnerable ... We don't even know which groups are operating in this underworld," explained Perla Gomez, who presides over the Human Rights Commission, which found the irregularities.

The Commission found anomalies at the San Juan de Aragón waste selection plant, in eastern Mexico City, where trucks deliver the garbage at the end of their route.

Although the plant belongs to the government, it is managed by leaders of garbage collection groups. At first sight it doesn't appear very different from a garbage dump. The workers are stationed on both sides of a long conveyor belt. As waste materials pass in front of them, they hunt out any items of value. For this job, they earn between $5 and $8 dollars a day.

A similar plant in New York, visited by Univision Investiga, hires floor laborers to work at similar conveyor belts. They call them quality specialists and work conditions are strictly supervised. The pay is $18.50 hourly.

Cheap hand sorting

The president of PetStar described this hand sorting system as a "philosophy of excellence."

He added; "We do not buy from suppliers who are not willing to give us the quality we are looking for."

PetStar pays a higher or lower price for plastic bottles, depending on whether they contain liquid, dust or paint.

This business model has resulted in the Mexican plant recycling half of the synthetic thermoplastic polymer resin - known as PET - for the whole country. That contrasts with the United States, where Coca-Cola owned a Recycling Division, which closed in 2014.

The main problem of American recycling plants was that plastic went into machines, mixed with trash, causing constant faults in the process.

"The quality of the incoming bale [of waste material] was not sufficient," said Steve Edelson, who ran the last Coca-Cola recycling plant in South Carolina. As a result he said it wore down the equipment and produced "a very low yield" of recyclable material, he added.

An internal memo from Coca-Cola, exclusively obtained by Univision, shows that Coca-Cola was able to avoid a PET plastic tax in 2001 thanks to the recycling system in Mexico.

The company estimated that the system allowed them to save $50 million a year. The memo was written prior to Coca Cola's purchase of PetStar, so it only considered yields from Imer, the first Coca-Cola recycling plant in Mexico.

Univision sent Coca-Cola excerpts of the document with this data, requesting comment. The company did not directly respond to the questions. Instead, it sent a list of statistical and historical data of its operations in Mexico.

The product-quality-based payment system particularly affects the inhabitants of the garbage dumps, which only receive plastic not gathered by volunteers at garbage trucks and waste selection plants.

Among them are Erica Herrera and her children at the Bordo of Xochiaca.

At the end of each day, the children do their homework, and go to bed early.

Erica Herrera said she hopes for better pay. "Instead of helping us they make it worse for us. If they paid well maybe we could live a little better," she said.