Industrial recycling of everything from grocery stores’ delivery cartons to manufacturers’ scrap metal is big business in the U.S., but household-level recycling is still for many Americans too often only a matter of local trash collection mandates or choosing “paper-or-plastic.”

In contrast, Mexico’s recycling emphasis seems less about sorting weekly household trash and more about repairing and re-using what many Americans would label “junk”.  In fact, Mexicans seem to have more of a penchant for squeezing more utility out of just about every imaginable piece of equipment than a Cuban auto repairman nursing a 50’s-vintage Chevy into roadworthiness on the streets of Havana.

Vintage VW Mexican beetle

In Mexico it’s more likely to be the exception than the rule that “it’s cheaper to replace it than to repair it.”

While it may be tempting to attribute the differing approaches to divergent cultural perspectives and values, the truth is that both reflect a shared reality:  Ecologically sustainable practices at the household-level are far more widely embraced when they pay out immediately, meaningfully, and personally.

The paradox is that despite America’s ample public resources for clean-up and ongoing waste management – not to mention a standard of living adequate to pay the higher costs of environmentally friendly products – America lags its neighbor to the south in one important way when it comes to sustainability: Replacement is frequently more cost-effective than repair because mass production – increasingly robotic and/or offshore – drives down the cost of parts and the price of American labor often renders repairs cost-prohibitive. ‘Green’ in America is still too often about advertised perception rather than reality.

While Mexico’s globally competitive wages may be about to propel it into the ranks of the world’s top 5 auto manufacturers, the purchase of many common consumer goods remains well beyond the reach of most families.  The result is that few Mexican villages – including those of the Chapala Lakeside – lack an ample complement of repair shops in which products are continually patched for the owners’ re-use or resale by electricians, carpenters, metalworkers, leatherworkers or painters.  Owners benefit from extended lives of repaired products and an untold number of families are supported by the craftsman who have dodged the rote repetitiveness of the assembly line and instead embrace the trade guild tradition of apprenticeship to master craftsman.  Mexico’s ubiquitous repair industry has created hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and sustainable careers.

Organic & renewable!

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s a model that began its American demise only after the Second World War.

There are many ways to reduce humans’ impact on the environment.  American attention has been focused on the appropriate disposal of toxic or non-degradable products, and the recycling of commodity waste into the manufacture of new goods.  In the meantime planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption continue to lace American landfills with discarded consumer goods rendered inoperative by a single malfunctioning component.  And plastic trash is reaching epidemic proportions in underdeveloped nations which lack the resources to manage it, to produce more ecologically friendly alternatives, or to incent more responsible consumer behavior.