Banning plastic…a problem or a solution?

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Recently, municipal authorities banned the sale and distribution of products made of plastic in some the municipalities in the department/province of Guatemala.  Workers in the recycling industry specific to these materials express their concern regarding these measures.  They say that it would affect their labor activity.  EntreMundos had the opportunity to interview David Lopez, member of ASOPRECGUA, an association of people who work in this sector.

Could you explain to us what ASOPRECGUA is? 

It is an association of recyclers and people who work in plastics in the department of Guatemala (ASOPRECGUA).  The association emerged when some mayors prohibited the use of plastics or are planning to ban their use.  The first case was the mayor of San Pedro La Laguna[1] and the more recent in San Miguel Petapa and Villa Canales[2].  There is also a legal initiative[3] in Congress (5196) which proposes prohibiting plastic bags and utilizing biodegradable ones[4] in the marketplace, different ones than the typical bags we recycle.

ASOPRECGUA currently has 50 members and each one has a small business which works with plastics collectors, whether intermediaries or primary trash collectors who are at the dumps or rivers in various parts of the municipality of Guatemala City.  As a group, these collectors are known as guajeros.  We decided to organize ourselves because in our country, if one isn’t unionized no one listens to you – no where.

How does the association function?

An industry exists which is dedicated to producing plastics separate from recyclables.  That is where we work.  We do not manufacture products made from primary-sourced material; we do not buy virgin material, rather we produce plastic products with plastics which have been discarded into the trash.   So we have a business, but we also contribute to cleaning up the environment.  We gather all the plastic possible, sort it, wash it, process it and convert it into other products.  This is accomplished through other enterprises, since not everyone has the machinery to complete the full processing.  So it is an assembly line.  We recycle various types of plastics such as nylon, bags, jars/cans, lids, etcetera.

Recycle team. Photo: David López

How do the municipal agreements and laws banning plastics affect you?

There are many people involved in the business of recycling plastics.  We, the small business owners, have procured expensive machinery for production — as I said previously, new products made from used products and we have various workers who depend on this production.  There are groups of guajeros at the dump sites who collect plastic at municipal dumps as well as at clandestine operations, sites not authorized for dumping, but have become such.

The guajeros are very poor people from many small communities from areas near the capital as well as from the interior of the country. They come to make a living.  Currently, there are guajeros in Santa Catarina and San Jose Pinula, 22 km. from Amatitlan and dumping sites for zones 3 and 18 in the capital city.  In total, there are about 15,000 individuals working in this business from picking up, to selling, to production of new plastics based on recycling.  Zone 3’s dump has thousands of guajeros even people who live at the dump.

The Dumpster in Zone 3 is where the recycling process begins. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We know that we could continue to work with other plastics that are not banned, but then how would the assembly-line work?  Those who work in nylon bags definitely couldn’t work recycling other products because the machines don’t process every type of plastic and they can’t be easily changed out.  Besides there would be more competition among the guajeros picking up plastics that are still usable.  Likewise, the conditions of recycling must improve, for example, we recycle syringes, but we have to be very careful with them because they come with the needles, and this is very dangerous for our health and for the guajeros who pick them up.

If more municipalities begin prohibiting the use of plastics and/or if initiative 5196 is approved by Congress, we wouldn’t be able to do anything to oppose that.  That is the reason our objective now is to raise conscientiousness among the people.  And there are many people who make a living through recycling and they would be without work because the authorities are “washing their hands” of the problem rather than confronting it holistically.  Besides, we think, if the typical, plastic bags are eliminated, it ought to be done fairly, so that means everything which pollutes must be banned, for example, bags for potato/corn chips.

The plastic bags are some of the garbage that come in major quantity to the dumps of the country. Many people are unaware that the bags can be recyclable. Photo: Students from the 11th semester of the career of Social Work from CUNOC.

So in that respect, what do think can be done? 

We agree that plastic is a problem with regards to pollution of the planet and for that reason our work is about taking trash from the rivers, the dump sites and converting it into new plastic products.  We are also conscious that currently we are not able to recycle all plastic found in the dumps, but we asked ourselves what would happen if we stopped doing our work?  Would there be someone who would accomplish this process while a change is being made?  Who would remove the trash from all those places?  The change is not going to be instantaneous and there’s no certainty that it will be successful.

Admittedly, no one wants to take charge of their trash; many do not reuse their plastic products and simply leave them for the garbage collectors or throw them in the street.  We think that since Guatemala City is an industrial area, it would be difficult to institute a norm of prohibiting {plastics}.  Popular life-style will continue being one that produces trash and not only plastics; so, the problem is not being dealt with at its root cause.  Besides we are sure that a ban on plastic would not end pollution.  Bans are being put in place because education is not getting to the people the way it should.

We would like to see agreements which create programs among municipalities, the plastics industry and the population, all working together.  We would like to be part of work groups that locate adequate dump sites and go to the elementary schools, high schools, markets and public places to teach the people about how to deal with the topic of trash.  And we’d like to do that in coordination with the municipalities and other environmental agencies, not because we want to take the responsibility from them, but because we want to show them that we have proposals for solving the problem; and that working in teams can achieve better results.  So, in this way, there would be more jobs for more people who dedicate themselves to recycling and there wouldn’t be trash in the rivers and streets, etc.

We consider education and organizing to be fundamental to solving this environmental problem.  In the case of San Pedro la Laguna, we know that this prohibitive measure has not functioned well, nor has it in Cantel.  Often there’s ignorance about recycling and people do not want to see the most effective solutions.  Instead they use easier solutions without consulting or investigating whether there might be people who could be affected.  The industry of recycled plastic is a thriving enterprise, a sector operating under all the legal requirements, besides doing the socially conscience act of reutilizing trash.

In order to solve a problem as best possible, we must analyze it in depth, and with the greatest number of actors involved. While our individual actions are positive, we must be aware that they only resolve a small part of the matter. As Rebbeca Sulivan, from the website News.com.au wrote in an article: Some consumers like to believe we are doing what is right for the environment when we buy plastic bags or cups of coffee marked ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ or ‘ecologically-friendly’.  It helps us sleep at night

Plastic tablets ready to be recycled

Notes:

[1] The mayor of San Pedro la Laguna, through a municipal agreement, banned the sale and use of plastics, styrofoam, straws and derivatives to reduce the pollution of Lake Atitlan.  In addition, the municipal agreement contains wording placing sanctions up to as much as Q 15,000 on companies which market and distribute plastic bags and the previously referenced products.

[2] There are others, besides these municipalities in the central area, where the use of plastics has also already been banned.  In the western region, for example, the 48 cantons of Totonicapan presented a policy to prohibit the use of plastic bags, disposable diapers, and styrofoam.  Since 2015 Cantel also banned the use of plastic bags but without much success.

[3] The initiative, Marco Law for the Regulaton, Use and Commercialization of Plastic Bags in Guatemala is sponsored by Deputy Felipe Alejos.  The law would reduce the use of traditional plastic bags mainly through the use of biodegradable bags, although it also takes into account the use of cloth and paper bags.

[4] According to the US Environmental Protection Agency 100% biodegradable bags are not a completely environmentally-friendly option because many of them require dumping sites to block air, humidity and sun-light, all crucial elements for correct biodegradation.  An investigation by the Australian Senate confirmed: “While consumers might feel they are doing what is right by choosing biodegradable or degradable plastics, these products simply disintegrate into tinier and tinier pieces which turn into micro plastics.

Cover Photo: Flickr of Mr. TinDC