Confronting the plasticine: promise in a world wrapped in plastic

As we poured water into a jug to be added to the ashes in the bucket, Maria (not her real name) asked in Spanish, “Why does making soap have anything to do with plastic?” Maria and another 50 or so Indigenous women from her village, in the highlands of southeastern Guatemala, had gathered ashes from their home fires and filled water jugs to bring to their community centre for a workshop with a local craftswoman on soap making; the first step of which is mixing ash with water and letting it sit. “That’s a long answer” I thought, struggling to think of how to express myself in Spanish. “Too much plastic everywhere, in the ground, air, water—chemicals in the plastic—bad for our health and for animals” I said in Spanish.iO, los químicos de plástico! iSi, son malos!” she agreed, as we finished our task. Outside, women were talking together, and you could feel their excitement—they wanted to learn something useful that might also garner additional income. This highland village had selected making soap, among many options, that might rebuff the environmental pollution that surrounds them. This first workshop seemed a success.

I first came to Guatemala in 2015 to join a long-standing Guatemalan-US-based research team working on clean air interventions and their benefits, such as clean gas cookstoves to reduce household air pollution and its effects on pregnant women and young children. Now, we are applying environmental sciences, nursing, anthropology, epidemiology, and implementation science to a new research project to reduce the amount of plastic waste burned in household cooking fires. Plastics are inundating rural communities, and where sanitation services do not exist, communities are left with little else to do but to burn household waste. Our study, known as ECOLECTIVOS (NCT05130632), applies a dynamic working group model. This model adopts a co-development approach for working with community members to determine desirable practices that might effect change, in this case, for reducing burning of plastics in indoor and outdoor household fires. Why plastic has become such a burden requires a longer answer that I could not find the words to tell Maria.

This longer answer conveys the historical truth, absent both in my reply to Maria and in how we generally think about ecological problems and justice. A shorter answer is that we have a burden of plastic that is killing our planet, something that is a result of multinational corporations’ massive reach and too little investment in infrastructure. In Guatemala, as in many parts of the world, there is a confluence of problems driven by corporate–colonial interactions. First, there is the promotion of plastics for everything, which results in plastic detritus everywhere. Almost no paper, glass, or metal is used for consumable packaging, only plastic. Then, there is the restructuring of products as single-use plastics, popular often because this form is cheaper and convenient. The small plastic bag with ice and a flavoured syrup made by your neighbour who has ice costs less than a soda in a bottle. The single-use shampoo in a shiny sachet, and the powdered laundry soap in the small plastic bag, also costs less today than a bigger container, even if the larger volume containers are ultimately cheaper. Around the rivers in these Guatemalan mountain villages, as in communities all over the world, people wash their clothes in natural sources of water, and now there are mounds of single-use plastic laundry soap bags littering the river shores everywhere. Near the community centre where the workshop was held, the discarded plastics cover the riverbanks, reminding me of foam on the ocean’s shoreline, but, unlike the foam, it will remain for years to come.

The book Pollution is colonialism, by Max Liborion, begins by calling attention to a moment in 1956, when the editor of the magazine Modern Packaging reported at a conference that the “future of plastics is in the trash can-it is time to stop thinking about ‘re-use’ packages and concentrate on single use”. This prediction is borne out by data showing that plastic production increased from 2 to 380 metric tons from 1950 to 2015, with estimates that by 2050 there could be 12 000 metric tons of plastic in the natural environment or in landfill sites;

  • Geyer R
  • Jambeck JR
  • Law KL
Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.