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Environment

This Town Was Drowning in Plastic. Now It's a Model of Sustainability.

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Plastic pollution is causing immense harm to the world’s ecosystems and governments around the world are beginning to curb plastic production in accordance with the United Nations’ Global Goals. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.

In San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, the meat you buy at the market comes wrapped in a banana leaves, tortillas are wrapped in cloth napkins, and you’re given a reusable rubber basket handcrafted by local artisans when you shop for groceries.

That’s because the town has banned the sale and distribution of single-use plastics, and has gone to remarkable lengths to ease the transition to sustainable alternatives, according to Atlas Obscura.

Like many towns and cities around the world, San Pedro La Laguna faced an epidemic of plastic pollution. A solid waste management facility that was meant to handle 10 years’ worth of garbage filled up within six months, primarily with plastic waste. As spaces to hold the garbage dwindled, plastic waste began polluting local ecosystems.

Take Action: Protect our Oceans! Prevent Ocean Plastic Pollution

In particular, Lake Atitlan, a central part of the town’s rich Mayan culture, was filling up with plastic bags, styrofoam, and other detritus, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

So mayor Mauricio Mendez banned the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in the town’s municipal jurisdiction.

At first, people resisted the ban because the convenience of single-use plastics had become an integral part of their lives.

Read More: 7 Massive Wins in the Fight Against Plastic in 2018

But the government was adamant and levied steep fines on people who violated the new law.

The government also went house to house, educating people about the environmental benefits of the ban and exchanging plastic items with reusable items free of charge, according to Atlas Obscura.

This proactive approach helped to change attitudes and soon people adjusted to a life without single-use plastics.

In many ways, the townspeople simply started using materials that been used prior to the introduction of plastic, including banana leaves, cloth, and paper.

Read More: 10 Simple Tips to Reduce Single-Use Plastics in Your Life

People and organizations throughout the 13,000-person town also rallied around the ban in creative and productive ways.

Local fishermen volunteered to retrieve plastic waste from Lake Atitlan, artisans made decorations out of excess plastic waste, and nonprofits began processing waste into fuel and other products, Atlas Obscura reports.

Today, the lake and local ecosystems are clean and waste management is no longer the vexing issue it once was. The town’s success has become so widely known that at least 10 other municipalities in Guatemala have enacted similar restrictions on plastic, WEF notes.

Read More: Illegal Plastic-Burning Factories Fill Town With Toxic Fumes, Forcing Malaysia to Act

As the movement against plastic grows, the plastic industry has tried to slow and reverse progress by launching lawsuits against towns and lobbying to maintain plastic use, according to OZY.  

Elsewhere, the dominance of plastic seems to be fading as the environmental consequences of pollution become more clear. More than 60 countries have taken action to restrict plastic production, multinational companies have vowed to find sustainable alternatives, and everyday people are pledging to stop using single-use plastics.

For many Guatemalans, the plastic industry’s tactics are simply stalling the inevitable.

“[This] is not a fashion phenomenon; [this] is survival instinct,” Marcela Gereda, an environmental activist pushing for a ban on plastics in Antigua, told OZY.