Repurposing Trash Along California-Mexico Border

Conservationists along the California-Mexico border are turning trash into park benches and other construction materials.

It’s part of a binational program to clean up garbage before the rainy season and involve local communities.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jill Replogle of Fronteras Desk reports.


Well, given the stalemate in Washington, a broad immigration reform bill is looking less and less likely by the day. That has implications for people who are living in this country illegally, and for the fence that many in Washington would like to build along the Southern border. But right now, we want to look at another problem that is popping up along the border: trash.

There’s a lot of it, from construction projects, from illegal dumps in Tijuana, where the – and when the rainy season comes in November, a lot of that trash winds up in the Tijuana River Watershed. From the HERE AND NOW Contributor’s Network, Jill Replogle of the Fronteras Desk reports on an attempt to put that trash to use.

JILL REPLOGLE, BYLINE: Border Field State Park occupies some 400 acres in the very southwestern corner of the continental U.S. The entrance to the park isn’t exactly inviting. There’s an empty dirt lot for parking and a gate that’s usually closed. But a project is underway to make the park more welcoming, using trash collected from the adjacent Tijuana River Valley and estuary.

STEVEN WRIGHT: These are all bottles that were – we actually sourced these out of the canyon right upstream.

REPLOGLE: Steven Wright is the cofounder of the organization 4 Walls International. 4 Walls takes trash found in the border region and repurposes it as construction materials. Right now, he’s leveling off a row of plastic soda bottles embedded in a layer of wet concrete.

WRIGHT: About 70 percent of the trash that’s in the river we can repurpose in this manner.

REPLOGLE: This trash will eventually become a bench for park visitors. Park director Chris Peregrin takes me to a stash of plastic bottle building blocks. They’re all stuffed full of plastic bags and pieces of discarded foam.

CHRIS PEREGRIN: If you look at this foam, those little particles, now this just splits and breaks and gets smaller and smaller and disperses through the environment and gets embedded in the riparian habitat and the salt marsh, and then, ultimately, it’s making its way out to the ocean.

REPLOGLE: The work here to improve the park entrance is part of a larger effort to improve the border environment in the U.S. and in Mexico, and to involve the people who stand to benefit from cleaner water and a healthier Tijuana River Watershed.

Peregrin, the park director, says September and October are prime clean-up months here, because soon the rains will come, bringing trash, polluted water and sediment from illegal dumps and construction sites in Tijuana. From then until spring, people usually can’t even get into the park because trails and roads get flooded, and the waters are often too toxic to do cleanup.

PEREGRIN: As a result, a large section of the community is not getting the experience of this river valley, and I believe that if people are not experiencing it, they’re also not going to advocate for it.

REPLOGLE: South of the border, in the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood, dozens of people are cleaning up an abandoned park that stretches along a narrow canyon feeding into the Tijuana Estuary across the border. The workers are employed through a temporary work program run by Mexico’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. Here, too, 4 Walls International is turning trash into park amenities.

ANA EGUIARTE: (Spanish spoken)

REPLOGLE: This one of my guides, Ana Eguiarte.

EGUIARTE: (Spanish spoken)

REPLOGLE: Tijuana doesn’t have many green areas or places to recreate, she says. And the idea is to preserve this area, to recover the original vegetation. Downstream from the park, the native willow trees are dense, nearly blocking out sounds from the surrounding neighborhood. We walk through the canyon brush until we reach a barrier of rust-colored, thick steel bars: the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Jose Palomera Chavez is one of the workers cleaning out the canyon. He’s grateful for the job, but seems somewhat skeptical if his neighbors will to keep areas like this one clean.

JOSE PALOMERA CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

REPLOGLE: The truth, he says, is that the people, we don’t do our part. He lives in another canyon that also feeds into the Tijuana River Valley, and he says every time the canal at the bottom of his canyon gets cleaned up, it soon fills again with trash. If it doesn’t get cleaned up again soon, he says, the rains will bring the trash all the way here, to the border.

CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

REPLOGLE: In some ways, this is exactly the point of these bi-national restoration efforts: to make people like Palomera Chavez aware of how their neighborhoods and actions connect to the larger ecosystem. For HERE AND NOW, I’m Jill Replogle, in Tijuana.

HOBSON: And Jill’s report comes to us from the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.