the garbage man/mexico’s bitchin service sector

You know that trend in the US towards stuff like “clean-label” foods, word-of-mouth advertising, loco-whatever, de-surbanization, etc… basically the shift towards “authenticity and balance.” The post-industrial US consumer seeks to reclaim its pre-industrial wholesomeness.

Mexico, through its own ongoing joys and travails of industry, has kept this wholesomeness intact. The grocery store gives us an elegant demonstration: a quarter-kilo of fresh wheat berries is 3 pesos (25 cents); a box of Trix is 45 ($4.00). Crappy factory food is expensive here because it’s seen as a first-world luxury and includes the cost of the infrastructure that produced it. Meanwhile stuff we’re clamoring for in healthfood stores back in the States is priced in Mexico for what it is– plant products that grow abundantly and easily and are relatively labor-minimal, considering you don’t need to build machines or add painstakingly synthesized chemicals in order to process them.

So that’s a simple contrast that I guess NAFTA has enabled us to see in terms of goods. What about services? As a post-industrial society, the US has a really highly developed service sector. How does Mexico’s service sector compare?

Mexico’s stratified economy distributes demand for services a bit differently than our huge-middle-class economy in the US does. So instead of comparing the scope of the two countries’ sectors, the variety of services they supply, let’s look at how Mexico meets existing service demands. The demand for waste management, for example.

I took this picture at a mall where one of my offices is. Yes, I believe this means the bin is definitely still property of San Jose, California.

Here is what Mexico does to handle garbage. Trash trucks circulate the streets every other morning or so, depending on your neighborhood. Sometimes a guy walks ahead of the truck ringing a bell, so that you here it and know to come down with your trash and hand it off to them. They will take it from you and sort it. That would be the minimal level of service. You tip the trash guys in this transaction.

The next level of service would be maybe if you live in an apartment building, the trash guys have arranged a certain day to come by and pick up the trash from a common area, maybe the parking garage. I guess the owners of the apartments pool together and “tip” them, not really sure.

The next level of service would be what we have in my apartment. A guy working in association with the truck guys rings our bell and comes up to our apartment every trash day to collect our trash from our door. For this we pay him tips. For this he says hello to me when I see him on the street. For this he tells me if he is going to be late. For this I tell him if we are going to be out of town. For this he lets me tip him a couple days late if I don’t have it on me.

In other words, my trash guy is providing me a personal, customized service. My trash guy.

And if you’ve wondered about this it all yet, you have probably realized this is not a service coordinated by the government or a company. It’s something that developed organically. Like the pesero transportation system and taxis, I am guessing the vehicles are owned individually and that they then join in some kind of coordination effort, probably either through some kind of association of waste managers or through the mafia.

These dudes by the way sort all the plastics, organics/biodegradables, glasses, paper, cardboard, etc. I am not really sure where they bring it afterward, though probably to someone who pays them for it.

This is an example of a way in which Mexico’s got the service sector on lock. You see this level of sophistication not just in garbage collection, but in professional services of course (my accountant comes to my house and sometimes gives me a month or so of free service; the vet personally carried our cat back to us after his neutering operation), retail via the neighborhood mom & pop-standard of customer service, even bureaucracy… Funnily enough the excessive amount of paperwork and redtape everywhere has humanized the process: no one can ever figure it out so we end up asking bureaucrats for help. And they do (most of them).

I am starting to see what has been so long-referred to as inefficiency as something that in some ways ultimately contributes to the economy– the human touch.

Btw here is a recent article in Foreign Policy about the resurrection of cities as the dominant influence in global socioeconomic geography. I also really enjoy Robert Kaplan’s thoughts in this area.

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4 responses to “the garbage man/mexico’s bitchin service sector

  1. While this stuff kind of works on a basic level, it’s hard to measure its efficiency, right? Especially on the Mexican end of things because it’s not organized in any way where someone could see how much recyclable stuff slips through the cracks or even how much garbage is actually pumping through the system and where the choke points are. (Not that this stuff gets measured consistently in the U.S. even with the level of organization in place there.)

    What is clear to me is that the Mexican garbage dudes don’t get paid on days when they’re sick and have no safety standards to protect them. And I’m going to go ahead and guess they don’t get paid nearly what their U.S. counterparts would. That seems like that should count for something in the calculus here.

    • Yeah, probs not… no health security or taxes either. Nor does he get paid when we sleep through the doorbell.

      I am aware of these travails because except the taxes part they also apply to me, though I recognize that I chose them and he probably did not. I would be interested to know our respective debt-to-income ratios.

      If there’s one thing I realize over and over again living here, it’s how much post-industrial existence actually costs.

      What blows my mind mainly, which I didn’t make clear here, is the fact that our garbage-guy-who-makes-house-calls (a very specialized service!) finds all of his work by word of mouth. Though, yeah, I guess most people here do.

      • i get your point about efficiency, though. how efficient is a word-of-mouth marketed/less organized economy compared to one that is superorganized and regulated?

        in 2006 i read that mainland britain was selling 100% of its recycling collection to china. i took that to mean that exactly nothing in britain was being made with recycled materials (and i stopped bothering to sort my trash and lug it four blocks to the bins… except glass which just seemed criminal to throw away).

  2. Check this out, great read: http://believermag.com/issues/201009/?read=interview_nagle

    She’s on the side of public sanitation as opposed to private contractors, saying it’s a debate that’s been going on “since the Dutch,” which I presume means since the city was called New Amsterdam. But she doesn’t really delve into it that debate much, and I’d love to see more on that topic.

    On your musing about his debt ratio: His debt is probably 0 pesos, or much closer to it than yours is, for a simple reason: Who’s going to give him credit? The developed world’s getting a lot of criticism for having extended too much credit over the last few decades, and fair play on all of that, but there’s something to said for borrowing power.

    “If there’s one thing I realize over and over again living here, it’s how much post-industrial existence actually costs.” THIS.

    And of course the thing is not just the what-do-I-do-with-my-trash question but the more important how-do-I-stop-generating-so-much-trash question. As much as I find recycling impossible to manage effectively here, I also find it really tough to cut down on unrecyclable things here. Like I really don’t want your plastic bag, Sr. Street Vendor.

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