Travel in a plastic trash world, and a Guatemalan village trying to change that

Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen

Plastic crap is everywhere. Consumer disposable staples make for a convenient lifestyle – instant, easy gratification for a moment of consumption. But it’s staining Earth, at what appears to be an incredible rate.

Plastic consumption and dumping really bother me. Two things made me think more about plastic trash since Earth Day last month. One is a village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where we stayed a couple of weeks; the other is my spouse’s growing interest in the problem.

First, my spouse. We hash out potential solutions to this problem. (As early retired slow travelers, we have a lot of free time.) He reminds me of one of the keys to this problem: there has to be a way to monetize plastic trash. Right now, it’s cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle. We think if someone thought of a way to make recycling profitable regardless of oil prices and other raw material factors, that would increase recycling efforts everywhere.

tedly at lake atitlan with lots of trash

Recently we came across a blog by an entrepreneur who explained another looming plastic problem – China. It has been the largest importer of American plastic trash for recycling. Now that country is set to cut down on the amount of plastic it imports from the U.S. Now what? More piles of plastic bits polluting every corner of Earth from the most consumer-driven economy on the planet?

In the time it took you to read this far, a garbage truck full of plastic shit was just dumped into the ocean. (This mental visual is courtesy of a study done in part by the World Economic Forum.)

Second, consumer use. To me, that’s the master key to this problem. That dump truck full of plastic shit might not be gone by the time your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren have grandchildren. You get the point. If consumption wasn’t as great, there would be less of a need to recycle in the first place. At current consumption rates, the planet is going to be a trashy hot mess in the near future – more so than it already is right now. And we got here fast. If one garbage truck full of plastic shit is dumped into the ocean every minute, that’s 1,440 dumps every day.

The accumulation rate of plastic trash is astonishing to me, based on what I’ve observed traveling around over the last 15 or so years. I’d go on vacation to some tropical beach back then, and maybe I’d notice a little plastic trash here and there. Today it’s everywhere, including the most far-flung places like the Arctic waters and isolated beaches.

The plastic bits really started bothering me in the fall of 2015, when I was living five months in Tulum, Mexico. After an especially strong storm that lasted a number of days, a bunch of dead sargassum washed ashore. Stuck within it — millions of pieces plastic of all sizes over the entire beach. It broke my heart, and got my head out of the sand. My favorite beach on the planet – defiled. Of course, it’s not just Tulum – it’s every place we go. Girlfriends on Facebook travel groups report the same major problem from every continent.

So what to do about consumer habits? Enter San Pedro la Laguna, a Guatemalan village that is not loaded with money. Yet this community on Lake Atitlan banned plastic bag, straw and styrofoam use – despite how cheap it is for businesses to use these goods.

When we went shopping in San Pedro at a small grocery store, we got an empty supply box for items we couldn’t fit into our reusable shopping bags. Our laundry came back to us in a cloth sack tied with a small bit of yarn. On the town square, a sign declares the ban as the effort of an environmentally-minded community – a community where the poverty would strike the average middle-class American as extreme. Yet, money or not, at least this community is trying to do something about the plastic problem.

I applaud San Pedro. Not many other places are trying to put a stop to this kind of plastic use. Yet, despite the effort, plastic trash is still everywhere around the lake, around the country, around the world. The problem is so widespread.

I’m really no better than the average person. I use disposable razors to shave my legs. I use plastic bags in a pinch when I didn’t properly plan ahead. I change out my plastic toothbrush. I use a lot of disposable plastic goods. But, at least I’m aware. I’ve already cut out straws a long time ago. I no longer use as many plastic bags because I try to plan ahead as much as possible, or I reuse the plastic bags I already have until they fall apart. I constantly reuse water bottles. And, I have vowed to try to create even less plastic waste going forward. Thank you, San Pedro. Thanks for challenging me in this way.

In America, in states and cities where plastic bag bans have been introduced, the plastic industry throws fits, claiming its members will lose money. The plastic lobby puts up a lot of money to make you see their point of view, their version of ‘facts’. It’s always, always, always about the money.

And that brings me back to what my spouse and I were kicking around: how do we make it so that recycling effort turns a profit? Because, like it or not, modern society isn’t going to stop using plastic. Also, like it or not, greed is a human trait that got us into this mess in the first place. Our demands for cheap, easy living have trumped the health of our planet – and of ourselves.

How can we make people care enough to forego some convenience? How can we successfully market against the disposable, convenient consumption lifestyle? I have a few ideas, but I’m early retired and traveling the earth so I’m hoping other people with better, brighter minds are seriously tackling the same issue. People with means and smarts to make it happen.

Studies say the average person reads 200 words a minute. Based on that estimate, in the time it took you to read this 1,000 word post, five garbage trucks – jammed to the top with plastic trash — just dumped their loads into the ocean.

A two-minute education on why all plastic cannot be recycled, can be found here in an Eco-patriot’s blog.

Ways to be part of the solution, can be found in Sarah Wilson’s blog.


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5 thoughts on “Travel in a plastic trash world, and a Guatemalan village trying to change that”

  1. Such a well written article. We too travel long term and slowly, and have been shocked by the mountains of plastic we’ve seen in places that would otherwise be paradise. Everyone has a responsibility, and reading this at the moment when climate change and attitudes towards it are at the forefront of world news is even more poignant. We do all we can to minimise our useage, so no straws/plastic cutlery or polystyrene containers. Reusable shopping bags. Refillable canteens and a steripen to purify water that isn’t safe. But I’m sure there’s a lot more we can and should do. Thank you for reminding me!

  2. Love this! And I loved Lake Atitlan, but didn’t even realize San Pedro was doing this! Makes me want to go back!!

  3. This is one thought provoking, well researched piece. It is a sad world. So much consumerism, even something small like Nespresso capsules and facial scrubs are major threat to the environment now. Those are some frightening statistics that you’re sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading and your kind comments Joyce. People like you who stop to think about it will be the ones who make a difference.

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