30 May 2018 Story Cities and lifestyles

This Mayan village is winning the fight against plastic pollution


On the shores of the majestic Lake Atitlán in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala, the small village of San Pedro La Laguna has quietly become a national leader on one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges: plastic pollution.

“When I took office, the municipal landfill was saturated with plastics and most of the waste ended up in the lake,” says Mauricio Méndez, the mayor of the village, which has a population of about 14,000, 90 per cent of whom are indigenous Mayans. “We needed to act fast.”

After consulting with the community and religious leaders, Méndez got municipal approval for a ban on the sale and distribution of disposable plastic bags, straws, and expanded polystyrene containers. In so doing, San Pedro La Laguna became the first community in Guatemala to rid itself of single-use plastics.

San Pedro
Mayor Mauricio Méndez (in blue) speaks to young people at a recycling facility. (UN Environment)

The move was not without controversy. The mayor says he received countless criticism from different sectors of society, as well as a claim of unconstitutionality by the Chamber of Industry of Guatemala.

But for Méndez, the struggle has been worthwhile: “80 per cent of our town’s inhabitants have stopped using plastics. That for us is a real success.”

Berta Ángela Navichoc, a housewife from San Pedro La Laguna, did not believe that her neighbours would get used to the measure so quickly. Today she goes to the market with her basket made of palm leaves and there they wrap up the meat for her with a banana leaf, as her grandmother used to do. “We mothers have to set an example for our children,” she says.

Merchants who sell food in foam containers or who distribute their merchandise in plastic bags face fines of 15,000 quetzales, approximately $2,000.

José Israel Pop Tuch, a local fruit grower, is proud of not having been sanctioned so far. He says that he encourages tourists not to throw away plastic, and to pick up litter they see on the ground “for the sake of our mother nature”.

San Pedro
A flyer declares "I don’t use plastic bags, straws or styrofoam". (UN Environment)

Méndez, the mayor, says the town is determined to protect the lake and beat plastic pollution: “We know how to recycle, we have been doing it for several years. Each citizen has in his house several containers for organic waste, paper, glass and plastic.”

Plastic pollution is one of the most critical environmental challenges of our time. Nearly half of all the plastic we produce is meant to be thrown away after a single use, and each year around 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans.
Plastic trash degrades into microparticles capable of entering the food chain, a serious health risk for the inhabitants of the Atitlán basin.

The mayor's struggle to preserve Lake Atitlán, however, do not end with plastic. He is working on a new municipal regulation to prohibit the extraction of sand from the river, and trying to convince other villages around the lake to work together on the issue.

“The lake is our life. We have the responsibility to leave this legacy for our children,” he says. I want my community to continue living close to the lake, bathing in it and serving tourists in a sustainable and efficient way.”

World Environment Day is on 5 June. The theme this year is #BeatPlasticPollution.

Learn more about our work in Latin America and the Caribbean.