Mexico’s History of Zero Waste: A “Bathroom” Culture

Yes, this is an odd title but indulge me! 🙏🏼 I promise you’ll find it interesting. You will learn about a unique history, specific to Mexico, that drives their obsession with über clean toilets, sweeping and zero waste which is rather unique and fascinating!

When I was initially planning on moving to Mexico City, I was connected with a local family here through a good friend from LA (her co-worker’s family). I needed somewhere to leave a piece of luggage and they offered to help with the transition however they could—really nice people.

I didn’t realize this family was fairly well-off and live in a huge house in the beautiful artsy section of CDMX called “Coyoacan” (where Frida Kahlo and Leo Trotsky lived). They are a house full of scientists (literally), the husband and wife are both scientists who are now retired but worked for large multinational pharma companies and their children are all scientists as well (including one who works on the Hadron Collider project in Geneva, Switzerland). They’re an older couple and are very well-travelled and were kind enough to invite me for lunch at their home and we had the chance to get to know one another and shared stories about our travels and our observations of other cultures as well as discussing American politics.

We all agreed at some point that Paris, in particular, had horrible bathrooms and toilets were often dirty, lacking in soap or paper and were not easy to find. I have no idea why we got on the topic of sanitation 🧐 but there you go! Anyhow, the gentleman said something in Spanish I’d never heard, “No tienen cultura de baño.” This means, “They have no bathroom culture.” As an American, I’d never heard someone express cultural observation in this way so I was intrigued. I’ve since heard this phrase used in different ways by Mexicans when making observations of others (it can be their own people too, not just other cultures; normally, it is used to apply to a group of people), such as: “No tienen cultura de X.”

Fast-forward to present day. I’ve been living in Mexico City for two months now. It is said that as a culture and as individuals, we tend to pay most attention to those things that are very important to us. So, the British pay close attention to table manners, Americans may pay close attention to what you do for a living, etc., and then there are things that we individually hold dear. Given I’ve traveled extensively and I’m a woman, one of the most important things for me is a clean and fully stocked bathroom. In the US and in Europe especially, I’ve encountered horrors when it comes to bathrooms and my delicate sensibilities have absolutely been offended many a time. 😱

However, one thing I noticed here in Mexico (and it’s not specific to Mexico City but most of Mexico in general) is their extreme focus on having literally spotless, fully stocked and functioning bathrooms that are normally “managed” by an attendant. Outside of restaurants or other establishments you will usually have to pay a nominal fee of five pesos ($0.25 USD at today’s rate). As I’ve traveled through Mexico (Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Playa Del Carmen, a couple of cities in Nayarit, a couple of cities in Jalisco and a few cities in Michoacán), I noticed consistently that there are always bathrooms available and they are (for the most part) always über clean (and I don’t use this word lightly; it’s almost like an obsession with Mexicans—shiny floors and fixtures), well-stocked and all have water and soap to wash your hands. Even if the bathroom location is not the most attractive, what you will notice is that it’s usually been cleaned and mopped within the last couple of hours. As I said, we notice and pay close attention to those things that are important to us!

As an example, take a look at the picture I have as the featured image for this post. This was a restroom I used somewhere in the city and I was literally taken aback by how spotless it was. It literally shines. Look at the floors…the camera would have caught smudges and the like with the light reflecting off of the floor as seen in the picture, but what do you see? Nada. Super-duper clean. I used this mid-day (we’d normally see this in the US at the start of the day before people have used it, but you will find that Mexican restrooms almost always look like this throughout the day).

Here are a few other examples, literally random pictures from different restrooms I’ve used as I’ve walked around the city:

I’ve learned through traveling and learning about other cultures that if a certain culture has a practice that is very well-ingrained in everyday life (no matter how “odd” to me), there’s normally a historical reason and influence driving this. So, I decided to try and understand if there was a link between Mesoamerican ancient civilizations and the toilet because it really has stood out to me as one of a few defining features Mexican daily life during my stay here. Guess what? Of course there is! 🤓

In a previous post I noted that Mexico was leading the way in terms of sustainability, well it turns out that these two topics are linked. I came across an article written by Marten Medina of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for United Nations University for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. The article “The Aztecs of Mexico: A Zero Waste Society” notes:

By the year 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, Mexico-Tenochtitlán [present day Mexico City] had a population of over 200,000. It was the largest city in the Americas, and one of the largest in the world — bigger than any European city at the time. Its size, orderliness and cleanliness impressed the Spaniards. The city, laid out on a grid plan (which can be seen in the background of the fresco image [below]) that covered over 12 square km, was the centre of the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica at the time.

The-Aztecs-of-Mexico-A-Zero-Waste-Society

The Aztecs were obsessed with cleanliness and other accounts of what the Spaniards saw as they entered Tenochtitlan corroborate this.

The Aztecs and were a zero-waste society, using human excrement as the most highly valued fertilizer for their crops and using human urine as a mordant in the dyeing of fabrics. They were also noted for “composting” a practice that is used to this day, where Mexican residents must deposit food waste (or as they call it “basura organica”) in special bins. In the days of the Aztecs, these food leftovers and agricultural residues (leaves, branches, etc.) were used to fertilize the chinampas (a highly sophisticated agricultural technique used by the Aztecs whereby man made “floating islands” were created in a lake using organic matter and food crops are then planted on them. They were so productive, they produced food 3-4x per year versus the standard annual cycle and exist to this day!).

By recycling organic waste, excrement and urine, the Aztecs also reduced land pollution and mitigated risks to human health. The article asks how was it that the Aztecs managed to go from hunter-gatherers to creating one of the largest cities in the world and a powerful empire in such a short time? Here’s what the author had to say:

First, their adherence to law and order created an organized city and society. Second, they created a meritocratic system, where hard work was rewarded. The Aztecs considered education as a high priority. All children had to attend school: boys and girls, commoners and nobles. Education prepared children to become productive members of society. They also developed a resource-efficient culture that made the best use of any available resources in order to survive. These factors shaped their waste management practices.

In order to sustain this zero-waste approach to daily life, they needed to develop a system of “capturing” human waste—enter a network of public latrines.

The Aztec’s obsession with cleanliness, their extreme focus on law and order and their well-documented comfort with death and sacrifice meant penalties were stiff for littering or wastefulness. For example, during the rule of Moctezuma II (early 1500s), dumping of waste and littering in public spaces was prohibited and penalized. In some cases, a person could be sentenced to death 😳 for cutting down a living tree. Further, family members of nobility and the elite often received more serious sentences as they were expected to be role models. Therefore, there was no impunity for those in power—in sharp contrast to most societies today were those in power and their families are often immune from prosecution for all sorts of wrongdoing. But I digress…

Keeping to the topic of cleanliness, the Aztecs had officials in charge of maintaining cleanliness and street sweeping. Scavengers (called pepenilia) were in charge of recovering recyclable materials (interestingly, this “role” in Mexican society exists today and they are “…still called pepenadores—in essence, keeping their Nahuatl name.”

The practice of having people specifically dedicated to recycling waste has existed for at least 700 years, if not longer. A funny side note on these “scavengers” is that in present-day Mexico City they roam the city in trucks collecting used and unwanted refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, microwaves, etc. and, much to the annoyance of many foreigners in Mexico City (myself included), they play a loud recording of a young girl’s voice over a bullhorn announcing that they are collecting these things. It is quite loud and even if you live on the third floor of a high-rise not facing the street (like me), you can hear them! Every foreigner who moves to CDMX will complain about it at some point. No one understands it and frankly neither did I, until I performed research for this post. There’s an absolute purpose to it; it helps build a sustainable zero-waste society and it’s a centuries old practice. Mexicans—having a great sense of humor—have even made hilarious videos and re-mixes with this call-out. Check them out here and here for a good laugh!

Moving on…it’s important to note that this obsession with cleanliness, waste management and recycling, did not begin with the Aztecs. It goes back to the Olmecs, who occupied present-day Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico from 1600 BCE to 400 BCE and the Mayans, who occupied present day Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico as well as Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and from 2000-1500 BCE and whose descendants continue to occupy these modern-day areas.

While little is known of the Olmecs, given they disappeared around 400 BC and the cause of their extinction is unknown, anthropologists and archeologists have been able to learn about the culture via archeological studies and artifacts. It is speculated that the Olmec had their roots in the farming cultures of Tabasco that date back to 5100 BC and 4600 BC and coincide with the domestication of corn, beans, squash and other foods indigenous to Mesoamerica (interestingly enough, Tabasco is the home town of Mexico’s incoming President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) who is known to be a strong proponent of farmers’ rights). The first Olmec “urban center” is credited as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan in present day Veracruz. San Lorenzo had an “elaborate drainage system which used buried, covered, channeled stones as a type of ‘pipe’.” These findings could be indicative of the beginning of waste management and a plumbing/toilet system in Mesoamerica.

As I researched more about the Mayans, another ancient Mesoamerican civilization that followed the Olmecs, I learned they too were focused on good health and cleanliness and viewed these as going hand-in-hand. An interesting article in the Times of Malta notes the following:

Mayan society is more than 3,000 years old. Interestingly, even in its most ancient days, it was much like our own society today. They had plentiful food and sophisticated health care. Good health was a complex blend of mind, body, religion, ritual and science. Medical professionals generally inherited their positions and then received extensive additional education. For example, the best of them sutured wounds with human hair; reduced fractures with bone setting; and some became skilled dental surgeons making prostheses from jade and filling deteriorating teeth with iron pyrite. It’s worth noting that cleanliness was extremely important to Maya of all classes. No matter their profession or work, even the poorest sweated and bathed at least once a day. History tells us that one of the worst aspects of being conquered by the Spaniards was the way they smelled. Rarely bathing and wearing unwashed clothes for months, they probably thought nothing of it. The Maya under their control could barely breathe. Sweat baths, similar to saunas, were part of an important purification process for the Maya. Especially ornate baths for royalty have been unearthed by archaeologists at many Maya sites.

It should also be noted that the Aztecs, at all levels of society, bathed once a day and nobility up to twice a day!

Another form of “cleanliness” that carries on to this day has to do with “sweeping.” This was well documented in Aztec society—which may explain those spotless floors in the bathrooms! A UK site dedicated to Aztec education called “Mexicolore” highlights the following:

At a time in Europe when street cleaning was almost non-existent and people emptied their overflowing chamber pots into the streets as a matter of course, the Aztecs employed a thousand public service cleaners to sweep and water their streets daily, built public toilets in every neighbourhood, and transported human waste in canoes for use as fertilizer. While London was still drawing its drinking water from the polluted River Thames as late as 1854, the Aztecs supplied their capital city with fresh water from the nearby hill of Chapultepec by means of two aqueducts, the first built by Netzahualcóyotl between 1466 and 1478, the second some 20 years later by the ruler Ahuitzotl. The symbolic importance of water to the Aztecs is clear from their (metaphorical) word for ‘city’ – altepetl which means literally ‘water-mountain’ in Náhuatl.

Another cleanliness related observation I have of Mexican daily life is that someone is ALWAYS sweeping and brooms abound throughout the city. While I haven’t taken a picture of this, you will see city workers on foot pushing large trash cans with multiple brooms up and down streets all over the city. They are responsible for sweeping streets and sidewalks throughout the city (much as they were in Aztec times). In my high-rise apartment building, you will run into at least five to six people sweeping and mopping every single day, throughout the day (see pictures at the end of this post). In the last building I lived in, a lower-rise building but one with at least 50 units, there were at least two people who swept and mopped daily. You’ll also notice “rags” (trapos) placed at every door; these are meant to capture dirt from shoes to keep floors clean.

On the topic of Aztec bathing customs, the following is observed:

IMG_0077
Two Aztec women washing their hair.

But probably nothing seemed more bizarre to the Spaniards than the Aztec attitude to personal hygiene. In a word, they valued cleanliness.

The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, in a tone of wonder, that Montezuma bathed twice a day. He did, but there was nothing extraordinary about that for an Aztec, since everybody, according to the Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijero, ‘bathed often, and many of them every day’ in the rivers, lakes or pools.

In this image above and the accompanying passage taken from the Florentine Codex (books created by Aztecs on Aztec culture and daily life, under a Spanish priest named Father Bernardo de Sahagun), the following is documented:

As Jacques Soustelle has written: ‘A love of cleanliness seems to have been general throughout the population’: the Florentine Codex hints at the importance placed on personal hygiene in documenting the instructions given by an Aztec father to his daughter:

‘[In the morning] wash your face, wash your hands, clean your mouth. Listen to me, child: never make up your face nor paint it; never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use – shameless creatures. If you want your husband to love you, dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes.’

Lastly, the author notes the following (and I was not aware of this disgusting practice employed by the Spanish):

Their [the Aztec’s] documents also make frequent mention of deodorants, breath fresheners and dentifrices. (Spaniards of the time cleaned their teeth with urine.)

So when that gentleman in Coyacan said to me, “No tienen cultura de baño,” about the French, I would expand that to apply to most Europeans as none of the early societies of Europe have the well-documented historical culture of cleanliness and effective waste management practices that ancient Mexican civilizations have and are carried forward to this day!

When a culture places a significant emphasis on something (especially a country like Mexico with thousands of years of history), there’s normally a historical and deeply embedded cultural practice that drives these behaviors. Obsession over clean bathrooms and sweeping in Mexico proves that point.

A broom and an army of people in charge of cleaning are never far away…I observed img_3066.jpgthat this woman, who cleans my local park, even takes her doggy to work. You can see him following her. When she stops to clean he waits patiently and as she moves on, he continues following her. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. 😍 Awwwwhhh!

An army of brooms is always on standy-by…

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