Sustainable Cities™

Mexico City's trash for food market

As modern society shifts away from landfilling trash, alternative solutions are required. Mexico City implemented a market for trading recyclable waste for food. Set up in 2012 the initiative now processes around 12 tonnes of waste on market day, which reduces waste but also helps in many other ways.

Mexico City Recycling 1
Photo: Secretaría del Medio Ambiente

Mexico City's Waste Problem

When one of the world's largest trash dumps, the Bordo Poniente landfill in Mexico City, was closed early in 2012 a major challenge faced the Mexican Government. In the populous city of 8.8 million and 20 million in the wider metropolitan area up to 12,700 tonnes of trash was dumped per day!

In response to the closure of the dump, numerous waste initiatives were set up to recover materials and to generate energy. One initiative launched in March 2012 by the Environment agency of the Mexico City District Federal Government was a program calledMercado deTrueque (Barter Market) where citizens could return recyclable materials to the government, in exchange for fresh food from local farms.    

How Does It Work?

The government collectors set up a market on the second Sunday of each month in a central park. Recyclable materials such as glass, paper and cardboard, aluminum beverage cans, PET plastic bottles and electronic waste are collected and sent to local recycling companies. Citizens are required to separate the materials before returning them. 

Mexico City Recycling 2Photo: Secretaria del Medio Ambiente.

When items are returned the returner is given a number of "green points" or coupons that can be exchanged for food onsite. 


This initiative is part of a set of initiatives to redirect the waste stream from the dump trucks towards a sustainable alternative in recycling.

Coupled with this aim, the initiative aimed to promote the existing local agricultural food supply and to support local farmers from areas within, and around, the Mexico City District. Agricultural producers offer more than 60 products from the local suburbs and the dairy areas such as Xochimilco, and Milpa Alta. The market is supplied now with local seasonal agricultural produce such as lettuce, prickly pears, mole, cheeses, plants, seeds and flowers.

Mexico City Recycling 3Photo: Secretaria del Medio Ambiente.

The initiative provides employment from both the food production side and trash collection side and with over 250,000 unemployed people in Mexico City this can make a difference for many. And people also save money.

The Mexican City District's Ministry of Environment explains that through the initiative citizens directly and tangibly see that trash can be a valuable raw material rather than a waste; a consequence of today's throwaway society. Plus, by consuming locally, this avoids large shipments of goods, reduces the carbon footprint, generates fair trade and maintains the soil of agricultural lands where the food is grown.

Users include people from different backgrounds, who source trash from different places, for example some is collected in households, and some from around the city.

Mexico City Recycling 4Photo: Secretaria del Medio Ambiente.

The Future

The first market in 2012 was sold out of produce where three tonnes of trash were returned. Since then, the market averages 12 tonnes of trash on market day. This is small considering that 12 tonnes of trash are generated per day of which only 12% is recycled.

Today the market is very popular but is struggling to keep up with demand. On occasions people are left with little choice for agricultural products since most produce disappears by late morning.    

To cater for a greater number of people, each person is limited to delivering a maximum of 10 kg of waste and a minimum of 1 kg. In general large transfers of goods are avoided so that locals can come to market with smaller amounts, reduce their waste from excess stock, and be able to travel a shorter distance to market reducing food miles and the carbon footprint of the food.

Despite the growing pains, the market is here to stay as it aims to entrench the culture and economy of recycling in Mexico City.

Thursday, December 12, 2013 / By David Maya-Drysdale

Last updated Tuesday, April 22, 2014