The effects of plastic waste in rivers, lakes and seas of Guatemala

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By Raquel Díaz – Communications student at the university Mesoamericana 

The Salamá River is the most important in the department of Quetzaltenango. From its origin in Totonicapán, it traverses the municipalities of Cantel, El Palmar, San Juan Ostuncalco, Quetzaltenango, Zunil, and San Carlos Sija, to finally penetrate the department of Retalhuleu, where it pours toward the Pacific Ocean. It receives various tributaries, like the Xequijel River where it also receives the River Seco, and the Rivers Chimoral, Xantún, Juchanep, Paquix, and others. For the length of its path from Xela to the ocean, it takes with it all of the plastic and other trash we toss in the streets or forests of Xela that isn’t absorbed into the earth; what the earth doesn’t swallow, flows sooner or later with the rain to the rivers.

Colum Muccio, Administrative Director of the Association for the Rescue and Conservation of Wildlife (ARCAS) Guatemala, affirms that trash, especially plastic, can travel as far as we do. “The problem of plastic is immense, and it affects all of us… While the problem of plastic trash is serious on the Pacific coast, it’s catastrophic on the Caribbean coast, where the Motagua River unloads thousands of tons of plastic, which come from as far away as Quiché and Alta Verapaz, onto the beaches of Punta de Manabique, and the Guatemalan keys, and the south of Belize. This plastic trash… stays at the surface of the beach’s sand, remaining buried up to half a meter deep.”

Desechos plásticos en la playa de Tulate, Guatemala.

Plastic waste on a beach in Tulate, Guatemala.

This affects ARCAS’ work, “especially in our efforts to conserve the sea turtle. The plastic that comes from the rivers reaches the beaches and is sometimes ingested by turtles and sea birds. “Turtlesixpack” [photo, opposite page] is a photo from the Internet of an extreme case of a freshwater turtle that was trapped in plastic. Often, when we do autopsies on sea turtles stranded on the beach, in our headquarters in Parque Hawaii [close to Monterrico], we discover that they have a lot of plastic trash in their stomachs. For the lute turtle, a critically endangered species, this is especially dangerous, since they feed themselves almost exclusively with jellyfish and often confuse plastic bags for this food. The bag stays trapped in their intestines, causing death by intestinal blockage.”

Regarding the pollution caused by plastic trash in the rivers, EntreMundos asked Nery del Valle, part of the Central Office for the Management of Solid Waste of the City of Quetzaltenango, if the municipality worries about it. He responded, “Of course. But more than anything it’s the lack of consciousness of residents that leads them to throw away their trash in inappropriate places.” He explained that the trash clogs the city’s stormdrains and causes flooding. He confirmed that the lack of recycling in Xela is a problem of a lack of infrastructure; the city has no plant to manage solid waste, and has no plans to build one. “What people can do,” he said, “is to separate their organic waste from inorganic waste.” He explained that the city “is doing trials to produce organic fertilizer. It’s not a exactly composting plant, but a structure exists to make one, and in the future that’s what is planned.”

Plastic waste is just one example of the contamination that our country’s water faces. It is clear that the degradation of surface and groundwater has become a powerful obstacle for the sustainable advance of Guatemala. Water pollution affects public health, expressed in serious illnesses above all among children, international tourism, water purification, the fishing industry, and other sectors, causing environmental, social, and economic damage that together put a brake on development.

Turtle trapped in a six-pack. Photo courtesy of ARCAS.

Turtle trapped in a six-pack. Photo courtesy of ARCAS.