Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Sustainability in Mexico

My friend Jim and I step out of his condo in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego and head towards the beach. Standing at the curb in front of his neighbor’s place is what appears to be a brand new bookshelf. We walk a few houses further and I see a very serviceable armchair sitting in the grass. Then we pass a baby’s car seat. Fifteen or more years ago, when my now teen children were toddlers, my wife and I opted not to buy this brand of car seat because it was too expensive. 

“Are people throwing this stuff out?” I ask.

“This is America,” Jim replies. “Of course they are. Who wants to put their baby in a car seat that some other kid spit up on?”

Jim points to a bedroom dresser at the curb. It’s got a few My Little Pony stickers on it, but nothing that couldn’t be sanded off or painted over.

“Later this afternoon, when the Mexicans get out of work, you’ll see pick-up trucks cruising around and guys loading this stuff up,” he says. “They drive it across the border into Tijuana and sell it there.”

My wife and I have traveled enough to know about America’s outsized global influence. Politically, financially, and culturally, people around the world aspire to be like us. They watch our movies and listen to our music. They make effigies out of our politicians and burn them. They wear our designer clothes and  sports teams’ apparel. They drink our sugary drinks and eat our processed foods. 

Along with the cheaper cost of living and slower, more affirming, pace of life, the familiarity of these sundries factored into the decision my wife and I made to move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with our kids in 2018. But one of the things we admire most about the culture, and which we naturally connected with, is that Mexicans have perfected the art of the hand-me-down.


Reduce, reuse, and recycle, is the mantra of tree-huggers everywhere. Or, as those defensores de los árboles say in Mexico, reducir, reutilizar, reciclar. No matter the language, however, the phrase embodies the order of preference of consumption: reduce the amount of stuff you use, reuse the things you have, and then recycle what you can. 

The most familiar incarnation of this philosophy for US citizens is putting your empty beer cans in the recycle bin when you get home rather than throwing them out of the car window while you are driving. But the idea also embraces turning something old and used into something new and useful; like manufacturing empty yogurt containers into a $175 handbag.

During our many years of living in the Washington DC area, my wife and I tried to minimize our footprint in various ways. On the order of reduction, I only owned one pair of jeans. We were masters at reusing things. We willingly accepted the charity of others to fill out our wardrobes, unless the material was polyester. We were happy with hand-me-down cars, so long as the brakes worked, and we furnished our home in Alexandria, Virginia, mainly with furniture donated by relatives. We never had a television larger than 27 inches because no one would give us one of the newer models. And we religiously separated our plastics from our metals from our cardboard. I even picked up dirty cans and crushed plastic bottles from the streets to deposit in the nearest recycle bin and snuck out of the house at night to break down cardboard boxes my neighbors had put with the trash instead of the recycle items.


It’s hard to measure whether people in San Miguel are conscious of the amount of stuff they use, but one barometer is what I see at the curb on trash pick-up day. Usually it’s just actual, stinky,  garbage.

I was stunned at the very useful things the people of Ocean Beach, San Diego, were discarding, but I shouldn’t have been. When we lived in Alexandria, we once garbage-picked over $100 worth of unopened plastic storage bins that we returned to The Container Store for credit. If things weren’t exactly new, they were at least “good enough.” Some of my son’s favorite toys were plucked from the side of the road. Sometimes we would find things that we didn’t need, but that were in good enough shape to be donated. Lest you think we were weird, we didn’t scan the neighborhood garbage cans weekly, just during the annual “Spring Cleanup.” And maybe a few times when something sticking out of the top of the can struck my fancy.

In Mexico, some things you would readily call garbage and not think twice about it don’t even get put to the curb. I was recently helping a friend clear out a storage area in her house. We pulled out vinyl signs from a conference she’d hosted years ago, a dozen pieces of varying length PVC pipe, a bunch of scrap lumber, two or three white boards that could not be erased, and five or six plastic milk gallons with cement in them. We put it all in a pile for a friend of hers to pick up.

“What’s he going to use it for? It seems like junk,” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. He’ll find some use for it,” she replied.

Of course. The vinyl signs could be cut and hung as curtains or sewn together and used as a tarp. The PVC pipes, if not going to be used for actual drainage, were curtain rods in disguise. The milk gallons were obviously meant to be used as weights for the tarp. Or doorstops. I knew that with a little elbow grease, there had to be a way to clean marked-up white boards. If not, maybe they could be given some legs and used as an end table. The lumber, I don’t know, maybe he planned to build a shelf, or a planter. Maybe even a house. 

Reselling used furniture is also a common practice here. When we moved from our first rented house, which came furnished, to our next place, which was unfurnished, we weren’t worried about the potential expense of buying new things because we knew there was a robust trade in the resale of household goods. 

When we moved from that place to our next place, which was furnished, we were able to sell everything that we had purchased, even a king size mattress that we had bought used, which would now be under its third owner in five years. And we didn’t feel obligated to put anything in storage because we knew that if we moved to an unfurnished place again, we would be able to find used items.

Do things sometimes go too far? Maybe. Shortly after we moved to San Miguel, another of our friends’ mattresses became infected with bed bugs. He tried a few things but couldn’t get rid of them so gave up and put the mattress to the curb. Within minutes, a Mexican guy who was wandering by had hoisted the mattress to his shoulders and began to amble away. Our friend stopped him and let him know the reason he had thrown the mattress away. The Mexican shrugged and said, “It’s better than what we have. I’ll wrap it in plastic.” 

Anyway, I’ve lived here long enough to know that if that doesn’t work out, the mattress still won’t end up in the dump. I bet you didn’t know, but if you burn the mattress down to the springs and prop the springs up shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of other mattress springs, you’ve made a fence.

It’s not just furniture and mattresses with bed bugs that have nine lives. A neighbor around the corner has a perpetual garage sale. She sells used women’s clothing, household items like colanders and utensils, plant cuttings, empty glass jars and bottles, broom sticks (not broom heads, just the wooden sticks waiting for a head to be attached) and slightly broken toys – picture a Spiderman action figure with a leg missing. I’m certain that if I accidentally dropped my hat on the street, I could buy it from her the next day.


One of the hardest adjustments to make upon moving to San Miguel for an ecologically-minded family such as ours is that there isn’t a city-wide recycling program. Aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass all go in the trash, if we’re lucky. Often, they go wherever the person who was drinking the beverage decides to drop the container. That’s frustrating.

But an informal recycling system does exist. I learned that if I crush my aluminum cans and put them in a bag on the sidewalk, someone will pick them up. Aluminum and other scrap metal can be sold. Plastic can also be sold. Each morning that the garbage truck comes, there are men digging through the bags and pulling out the plastic bottles before the truck arrives. By mid-day you see them like a colony of ants marching through the streets with three or four extra large yard waste bags bursting at the seams strapped to their backs, on their way to the scrap yard to make the sale. It’s a dirty job, and not one that I can picture myself doing no matter how bad things get, but I’m glad someone is doing it.

A recycling receptacle was recently installed in our colonia (neighborhood). It’s emptied by local volunteers each week and the metal and plastic sold, with the proceeds used to benefit the community. Proceeds were used to buy security cameras, which were installed on street corners, including one aimed at the recycling bin so we can see if someone climbs in and tries to empty it. We also bought trees and flowers and planted them along a pedestrian walkway.

Glass is generally not recycled, but wine bottles can be used in art projects. But even in San Miguel, where there is a thriving art community, there aren’t enough artists to keep up with the supply. So what to do with glass? For a while I kept and cleaned interesting looking bottles and jars. Some of them were good for storing odds and ends, but you can only pick up so many screws, nails, and washers from the street to put in your glass jars before your wife tells you that you have too many glass jars filled with screws, nails, and washers. 

There is a glass recycle truck at the local mall, and every month or so we’ll haul our collection of empties to it. But the bin hasn’t been emptied in nearly a year. Even though I’m hopeful it’s not all going to end up in the landfill, I’m not sure. So I’ve resolved to buy my beer in one liter returnable bottles when I can.

Paul Carlino