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Life without single-use plastics: the case of San Pedro La Laguna

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You don’t need a straw for beer, so why use one for soda?” argues Victor Tuch Gonzales, municipal planning director in the Guatemalan town of San Pedro La Laguna. By 2016, the town, and the nearby lake of Lake Atitlan, were drowning in plastic.

The waste disposal plant that had been built to handle ten years of waste was half full within only six months. The Mayor of the town, Mauricio Mendez, realized that radical action was needed. The municipality was the first in Guatemala to implement a complete ban of single use items made of plastic and Styrofoam.

Image credit: Mike Nelson/EPA

The change wasn’t easy. The municipality had to discuss with the 13000 inhabitants of the town and exchange single-use items with biodegradable alternatives for free, to take the financial burden off the shoulders of citizens that could not afford reusable containers. Heavy fines were imposed to individuals and companies that break the law, and projects were launched to repurpose already disposed plastics. Waste was used to build furniture for local schools, and for making decorations. Local fishermen offered to fish plastic garbage off the lake.

Today, packaging material used in the town include large leaves, textiles and paper. Sturdy reusable rubber bags are used for carrying hefty objects and the restoration of the lake supported a 40% increase in tourism in 2018.

More and more cities and countries worldwide implement bans in single-use plastics. For example, a ban in South Korea and in Jamaica is already in place since the beginning of this year; the Indonesian island of Bali is planning to enforce the ban by mid-2019; and according to the New York Times the city of New York could implement a ban on plastic bags by the end of this year (styrofoam is already banned in the city).

And new environmentally-friendly alternatives are coming up. For example, the winner of the Swedish leg of the James Dyson Award 2018 was a 24-year old student from Gothenburg who designed a thermoplastic material made of potato and water which is suitable for use instead of plastic in the fast-food industry.

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