Mauricio Mendez, mayor of a small Mayan town in south-west Guatemala, is leading a revolt against plastic pollution.
In 2016 he initiated a ban on the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in San Pedro La Laguna, which has prompted other communities across the country to take action.
The town sits on the shores of Lake Atitlan and is home to a Tz’utujil Maya community that is fighting to preserve its traditional way of life. Today, the lake’s water is free of plastic waste, but this wasn’t always the case.
Before the ban came into force, San Pedro La Laguna had been deluged with single-use plastics. Disposable shopping bags, food wrappings and styrofoam trays saturated the municipal landfill and much of the waste ended up in the lake, damaging its delicate ecosystem.
Initially the ban met with resistance, not least from residents accustomed to the convenience of single-use plastics and unable to afford biodegradable alternatives.
The municipal government stepped in to remove single-use plastics from circulation and replaced them with reusable or biodegradable alternatives. Meanwhile officials went house-to-house educating residents about waste management.
Traditional handcrafted paper, baskets made of palm leaves and food wrapped in banana leaves became commonplace as residents embraced the idea of tackling plastic pollution and protecting the local environment. Anyone found defying the ban faces a hefty fine.
Speaking to UN Environment, Mendez said: “80% of our town’s inhabitants have stopped using plastics. That for us is a real success”.
A domino effect
The ban has had a knock-on effect across the Central American nation, with town after town adopting similar measures or considering regulations to curb pollution caused by non-biodegradable waste.
Since San Pedro La Laguna put its ban in place in October 2016, 10 municipalities have introduced restrictions on single-use plastics and many others are discussing plans to regulate them.
These are grassroots initiatives driven primarily by Mayan communities attempting to preserve their local environment, rather than a coordinated campaign by NGOs. So far, the federal government has not committed to national action to regulate single-use plastics in Guatemala.
However, the success of the movement has caught the attention of the plastics industry which has responded with lawsuits and media offensives, according to news site OZY.
Nations tackling plastic pollution
In the war against plastic waste, national governments have a number of weapons at their disposal including bans, taxes, and agreements on ways to reduce usage.
Total or partial bans on single-use plastic bags are now in place in dozens of countries, while others, like Ireland and Portugal, have implemented a tax to deter shoppers from using them.
In some cases when governments have been reluctant or slow to take action, states and municipalities have instigated their own initiatives.
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Penzance in Cornwall is Britain’s first plastic-free town, a status conferred on it by national maritime conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). The group worked with the local community to rid the town of single-use plastics including straws, bottles, food containers and cotton buds.
Bengaluru in India outlawed single-use plastics in 2015 and is taking a high-tech approach to policing its ban. City officials will be issued with handheld devices which photograph people using banned plastics, record the offence location and then generate a ticket for an on-the-spot fine.
San Francisco banned plastic bags back in 2007, but city authorities have taken their fight against waste to a new level. Shoppers needing a single-use compostable or recycled paper bag at the supermarket checkout are now required to pay an additional 10-cent tax per bag.
A new plastics economy
Plastic packaging does bring advantages, for example in food safety and hygiene. But as a 2017 report from the World Economic Forum highlights, the system has significant drawbacks.
The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action outlines a plan to deal with the problem - design better packaging, increase recycling rates and introduce new models for recycling.
The problem is complex, and while bans are part of the solution, it's the system as a whole that will need to change.