How a Guatemalan Town Tackled Its Plastic Problem

In San Pedro La Laguna, single-use items made from plastic and styrofoam are banned.

At dawn, the market is bustling with all the usual suspects. A vendor prepares tostadas with an array of colorful toppings from sautéed beetroot to homemade guacamole. In the next stall, a woman is pounding out blue corn tortillas by hand—the rhythm of her labor echoes throughout the market, setting a lively tempo. Nearby a farmer is selling fresh produce from wicker baskets.

Inhabitants of San Pedro La Laguna are primarily Tz’utujil Maya. Local ladies don colorful textiles, carrying the history of their ancestors in the threads. They carry equally bright woven rubber basket bags that they fill to the brim with goods. The baker and pharmacist are busy handcrafting paper packaging for their products. Men wearing traditional woven hats sit on the shallow steps of the town’s Catholic church as children play in the stark white courtyard.

Something is missing from this commerce scene: single-use plastic and styrofoam.

San Pedro La Laguna in 2012.
San Pedro La Laguna in 2012. Murray Foubister/CC BY-SA 2.0

Before 2016, San Pedro La Laguna was drowning in plastic pollution that was threatening the fragile ecosystem of Lake Atitlán. The dire need for change crystallized when a solid waste disposal processing plant that was expected to manage a decade of waste was halfway full within six months, mostly with single-use plastics. Rather than build a larger plant—which would’ve been an enormous financial burden on the town and further polluted the lake with debris—Mayor Mauricio Méndez decided to implement a stringent municipal law to encourage lasting, sustainable change.

By restoring and preserving the natural beauty of the lake, San Pedro La Laguna has attracted more tourists. Tourism is the largest economy in San Pedro La Laguna—visits to the town increased by 40 percent in 2018. Travelers are also prohibited from using plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam containers in the town.

Méndez and Gonzáles hope their efforts will be replicated by other townships on Lake Atitlán in order to align preservation efforts and honor Mother Earth—a significant figure of Mayan spirituality. The ecological municipality is developing additional environmental conservation projects including residual wastewater treatment plants, switching to LED lights, prohibiting sand extraction from the lake, and using waste as building materials to build tables and chairs for local schools. Gonzáles believes that these efforts will “have a positive impact not only on the environment but also the economy of local people.”

As Méndez says, “tu basura es mi fortuna”—your trash is my fort.


How a Guatemalan Town Tackled its Plastic Problem


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