Environmental Education in Action in Tijuana

National Headquarters  |  January 25, 2024
Tzu Chi volunteers in Tijuana, Mexico, collect garbage on the streets, taking practical actions to initiate environmental education for residents. Photo/Shuli Lo

Written by Shuli Lo
Translated by Ariel Chan
Edited by Janet Li, Patrick McShane

Tijuana, a city on the northern border of Mexico, just across from San Diego, California, the scenery is vastly different despite the same sky and mountains. The roads are no longer flat, the streets are no longer tidy, and there are no beautiful houses. As you move away from the city center, the asphalt roads turn into muddy paths, uneven with potholes and ruts. Riding in a car feels like being on a bumpy ride. After a trip on these roads, Tzu Chi volunteer Cixi Cai wryly smiles and quips, advising pregnant women not to travel on this road to avoid the risk of miscarriage.

On October 28, 2023, Tzu Chi volunteers entered the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, to address severe environmental pollution in local communities, launching practical actions for environmental education.

Distressing Scenes of Environmental Pollution

When entering some of Tijuana’s communities in need, dust fills the air along the road. Trees, cars, and fences on the roadside are covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime. Small fires of burning garbage are visible everywhere, and thick smoke pervades the air, carrying the smell of burning plastic. However, the residents of Tijuana seem accustomed to this atmosphere, as discarded garbage and burning waste are omnipresent. Due to the absence of garbage trucks and recycling services in the area, scenes of littering and waste burning are common. Some residents even burn the plastic shells of valuable metals like copper and iron to extract the metal inside, which they then sell.

Recognizing the severity of environmental pollution in Tijuana, Tzu Chi volunteers initiated an environmental education activity through practical actions. Tzu Chi volunteers spent a Saturday visiting a Tijuana community in need, collecting outdoor garbage, and promoting resource recycling, hoping to instill the concept of recycling and reuse in the residents through practical action.

Demonstrating Effectiveness of Environmental Recycling on the Streets

This was the second time that Tzu Chi volunteers in the Tijuana region took to the streets to promote recycling. Tzu Chi volunteers Dr. Joe Wang, Cixi Cai, Tijuana region manager Cindy, and Victor Galindo, a teacher from the “Hope Classroom,” all participated in this outdoor garbage recycling environmental activity. They hoped that this activity would garner local recognition and encourage residents to join the environmental protection efforts.

Volunteer got a lot of recycling trash
A fruitful harvest of collected bottles and cans. Photo/Shuli Lo
Volunteers putting all the recycling trash in to a big bag then upload to the truck
Tzu Chi volunteers pack the previously collected recyclables into large woven bags and deliver them to the recycling station. Photo/Shuli Lo

Dr. Joe Wang and Cixi Cai, despite just returning from a trip to Tzu Chi Jing Si Abode in Hualien, Taiwan, drove for more than five hours to reach Tijuana. Early on a Saturday morning, they joined others in collecting garbage on the community streets.

On the open land by the roadside, abandoned garbage is visible everywhere—plastic bags, bottles, cans, and cardboard. There is so much waste that volunteers could only focus on collecting recyclable plastic bottles, cardboard, and aluminum cans. These items, along with the bottles and cans collected during the first effort, were transported to a local recycling facility. On that morning, the volunteers earned 250 Mexican Pesos, about $14.55 USD,  from the recyclable materials, and the money was donated to Tzu Chi USA.

Witnessing locals burning garbage everywhere, Tzu Chi volunteer Dr. Joe Wang expressed deep concern. He stated that burning garbage not only causes environmental pollution but also affects people’s health. A slight mishap could even lead to a fire, making life more difficult for the already impoverished residents of Tijuana: “Today, bringing all the staff to participate in environmental recycling, mainly is to demonstrate that the issue of burning garbage in Tijuana is extremely severe. This morning when we went to the recycling location, people happened to be burning garbage. We stayed there for only two minutes, and I already started to have a headache. Some others felt discomfort in their eyes and throat. There was a person living nearby, he said he suffers from asthma, very seriously. But he has no choice because everyone is burning garbage here, so this is a serious problem. Breathing in thick smoke every day, thinking about the children living there, it’s really worrying.”

Although our power is limited, we start with ourselves. We can't demand others to change, but we can change ourselves. Gradually, everyone will change. I believe that one day, this place will also become clean.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Wang expressed optimism, believing that the demonstration of street garbage collection would be effective. He said, “We put on uniforms, wore our Tzu Chi volunteer vests, and demonstrated outside. Some people curiously asked us what we were doing, and we told them that our environment here is not good, so we’ve started garbage recycling. Some people were very interested; an old lady even left her phone number, saying, ‘Tell us next time you do this, and I’ll come to help you collect.’ This is the meaning of our environmental education. Instead of just talking, we lead by example.”

Planting Environmental Protection Seeds for the Children of the ‘Hope Classroom’

In addition to providing medical services, Tzu Chi Tijuana Campus has also established the ‘Hope Classroom’ for local children who have dropped out of school. The goal is to offer them an opportunity to continue their education, break free from difficult living conditions, and strive for a better future. Teacher Victor Galindo from the ‘Hope Classroom’ also participated in the resource recycling activity with Tzu Chi volunteers. He strongly agrees with Tzu Chi’s environmental education and mentions that he will instill the concept of resource recycling in the children during classes: “We go out to collect cardboard and plastic bottles, taking practical actions to teach community residents to keep our city clean. We will put this practice into action in the classroom with the students. We just did an activity where the students used plastic bottles to make piggy banks, and the children cooperated very well.”

Everyone should not just verbally appeal; we should take practical actions for environmental protection. We need to instill environmental concepts in children from an early age, hoping that they will become seeds of environmental protection in the future and teach residents to develop the habit of recycling.

Tijuana resident Marth Martines
Community resident Martines expresses gratitude to Tzu Chi volunteers for cleaning the streets. Photo/Shuli Lo

Residents of the Tijuana community endure smoke from burning garbage every day. Community resident Marth Martines happens to live in an area heavily affected by smoke. Seeing Tzu Chi volunteers cleaning the streets, she expresses deep gratitude: “It’s very messy here, people throw garbage everywhere, burning garbage generates a lot of smoke, which is a kind of pollution for everyone. Many elderly people and children here are sick. Thank you to Tzu Chi for your help, I’m very grateful.”

In the evening of that day, Tzu Chi volunteers returned to Los Angeles, and on the way, they could still see people burning garbage, with flames and thick smoke rising straight into the sky, causing further concern, and reminding volunteers there was still work to be done.

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