Skip to main content

Tijuana’s Plastic Bag Ban Expected To Help San Diego Beaches And River Valley

A plastic bag hangs in a grocery store in Tijuana, Sept. 11, 2018.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: A plastic bag hangs in a grocery store in Tijuana, Sept. 11, 2018.

Tijuana's plastic bag ban is expected to improve the cleanliness of both San Diego's and Tijuana's oceans, beaches and a river valley in Imperial Beach that has long been choked by Mexico-originating plastics.

The ban was approved by the city council last month in response to an initiative led by Councilwoman Monica Vega, Tijuana's civil society and environmental groups in San Diego.

It will go into effect before the end of the year, but vendors will have two years to adapt before facing fines.

Ana Eguiarte is the binational liaison for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. She said she thinks it’ll be easy for Mexicans to adapt to the plastic bag ban. Plastic bags didn’t saturate Tijuana until NAFTA brought mass consumer culture to the city in the 90s. Before that, many Tijuana residents used their own baskets, or "canastas," and other containers.

“We try to inform young people how their mothers and grandparents used to go to the market bringing their own materials," she said.

Carlos Alberto runs a taco truck called El Tigro Toño just a few blocks south of the border. He uses plastic bags for to-go taco orders and to wrap jalapeños and salsas. He even wraps his plastic plates in plastic bags to keep them clean while customers use them.

Alberto said he found out about the ban from a client who returned a plastic bag to him.

"And I asked him, 'how are we going to give you the tacos?' And he said, 'well, we have to improvise,'" he said.

More than half of Mexicans work in the informal economy, selling food and trinkets on the street. Alberto said he’s not sure everyone’s going to be able to comply with Tijuana's plastic bag ban if there aren’t cheap alternatives.

“Poor people who work, if plastics are available for sale, we’re going to use them because we need to," he said.

When asked how he might improvise, Alberto said he may resort to giving his customers tacos wrapped in napkins.

Nonprofits are leading public awareness campaigns with the hashtag #Desembolsate, which roughly translates to "Un-bag yourself."

Education coordinator for the research reserve Anne Marie Tipton said a 2009 trash characterization study of 3,500 tons of trash in the Tijuana River Valley found about nine million plastics in the marsh, and that the quantity was cut in half after California's plastic bag ban in 2016.

"So there's actual evidence from California that it actually makes a difference," Tipton said.

Daniela Coronado, an assistant for Tijuana Councilwoman Vega, said Tijuana’s leaders were inspired in part by California’s ban and its success.

"Without a doubt, it helped spur us that our neighbor was succeeding with these policies," she said.

The Imperial Beach-based environmental group Wildcoast is pushing for a similar statewide ban and has been meeting with Baja California officials.

Paloma Aguirre, Wildcoast's coastal and marine director, said a recycling program in Tijuana would help even more than a plastic bag ban because plastic bottles are "the most prevalent debris" collected during cleanups of the beaches and river valley.

She said the Tijuana plastic bag ban passed in large part due to the support of Canacintra, a Mexican industry group that she said Wildcoast brought to the table.

"This is an important example of cross-border collaboration and cooperation that brings about regional benefit to both countries," Aguirre said. "It's in stark contrast to some of the rhetoric that's currently taking place with our administration."

Tijuana’s city council has approved a ban on plastic bags. It goes further than California’s ban, prohibiting the sale, delivery and gifting of biodegradable bags as well.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.