The challenge of reducing garbage

Por Rocío Palacios Castellanos

Every day, we buy and consume products that generate waste. Nobody in Guatemala can say that they don’t generate “garbage.” This word is in quotation marks because when we use a receptacle to dispose of our waste, we do it without much thought. It all becomes garbage in the end. However, if we sort our waste, we can find a world of opportunities for these materials and create a circular economy.

Uncontrolled waste disposal leads to the creation of open-air dumps. Informal dumps, where waste is disposed of without any control or protection, are the most dangerous. They take over abandoned areas, streams, ravines, and other unsuitable spaces. At some dumps, waste is intentionally burned to reduce its volume. One third of urban waste generated in Latin America and the Caribbean ends up in a dump or the natural environment, a practice that contaminates the ground, water, and air and also affects health of local inhabitants. According to the United Nations, low capacity for recycling is one of the challenges the region faces.

Guatemala’s relative lack of a culture of waste management and scarce interest in waste reduction is evidenced by the increase in dumps. According to a May 21, 2021 post on the site Agexport Hoy entitled “Solid waste management: pending in Guatemala,” there are 69 open-air landfills in Guatemala, 10 controlled landfills, 15 sanitary landfills, and more than 2,300 informal dumps; all for 17,000,000 people inhabiting 340 municipalities.

This document from Agexport Hoy also says that “It’s undeniable that this lack of waste management has a severe impact on the ecosystem and thus the quality of life of all Guatemalans. This highlights the problem that pollution poses, as nature has already exhausted its capacity to restore its natural cycle thanks to the growing volume of uncontrolled dumping, which equally threatens the economy. Examples of this pollution are seen daily. The most iconic sites are sad examples of the effects of pollution and the indifference of the population: Lakes Amatitlán and Atitlán; the Villalobos, Las Vacas, Samalá, Motagua, Achihuate, and María Linda rivers; urban ravines, etc. This waste is not static: it eventually accumulates at the seacoast, where it has significant impact on the marine ecosystem.”

Most of Guatemala lacks a solid waste management system, and so garbage is simply collected without any sorting by residents, before being brought to a landfill without any waste treatment system. In general, residents do not know where their local landfill is, nor what happens to the waste they generate. In fact, very few people know where municipal dumps are, and even fewer know where their waste ends up.

Various municipalities in the Department of Sacatepéquez bring their waste to the landfill at Kilometer 22 of CA-9 in the town of Villa Nueva, Department of Guatemala. Trucks travel at least 40 kilometers (round trip) and so municipalities consider waste management an expense. In Quetzaltenango, 240 tons of waste are collected daily before being brought to the dump. One post from Ojoconmipisto says that the municipality spends 7,378,332 Quetzales each year to rent 30 garbage trucks.

According to the Municipal Code, garbage is the responsibility of municipalities, but with 70 tons of waste, or more, are generated in less than a week, the problem is GIGANTIC!

In August 2021, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) published Governmental Accord 164-2021, which sets August 2023 as the deadline for citizens to learn to sort their trash. For now, all that is required is a simple primary sort, that is, separating organic and inorganic waste. The same document states that from August 2023 onward, secondary sorting will be required, wherein other materials, such as glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum must be sorted too.

This accord, in addition to setting guidelines for proper solid waste management, seeks to dignify the work of garbage collectors through the establishment of regulations for the use of protective equipment, dignified wages, lighting and ventilation standards for trucks, and other matters. This is important, because garbage collectors currently work hard in deplorable conditions.


The most recent survey of waste undertaken in three communities in Antigua, Department of Sacatepéquez, yielded results similar to those from other departments. These studies showed that 51% of household waste is organic, 33% is recyclable material, and only the remaining 16% is solid waste that cannot be repurposed. This shows that it would be feasible to manage organic waste at home with a composter, while separating recyclable materials before handing them over to the collection truck. Up to 84% of waste could be diverted from landfills.

Complicated materials

Some waste items, due to what they’re made of or the shape that they’re in, are either not recyclable, or require a very complex recycling process. Something important to know is that all disposable utensils or materials are garbage. If a box is stained with grease or food waste, it cannot be recycled. Furthermore, Styrofoam is harmful to human health when it comes into contact with hot food or drink and cannot be recycled in Guatemala.

Tetra Briks are another item that cannot be recycled completely. They are used for packaging milk or juice, and are made up of layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum. In Mexico, the aluminum is separated from the other layers and reused to make other items, like tiles or notebook covers. Other disposable materials that cannot be recycled are clear containers used to transport cakes and other to-go food items.

Basic facts about recycling

Municipal authorities and all citizens should learn about what materials can be recycled:

Glass is an inert material made of silica sand. It is 100% natural, does not alter the flavor of food, and is infinitely recyclable. Aluminum can be recycled up to 30 times. Any metal is valuable, and metal in general is usually recycled and repurposed.

There are many types of plastic. Those that are hard and thick are usually recyclable. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is plastic type 1 and is used as the main material to make bottles for carbonated beverages, energy drinks, and water. This material is 98% recyclable, and Guatemala has recycling plants that can process it.

Paper and cardboard are materials that should be separated from all others. They can be recycled and reinserted into the production chain, but they must first be dry and free of any residual food waste.

Refuse, reuse, repair

Whenever possible, the use of disposable materials and any unnecessary purchases should be avoided. It is better to repair something before buying a replacement and sending the old item to the trash. This practice of reuse was popular in the past and is a habit we should get back into.

It’s possible

In Antigua Guatemala, the organization #HaciendoEco undertook a pilot plan with 10 restaurants: employees received training and each company provided labeled waste receptacles. People sorted their waste for the first time (and did it well). The result was the collection of 6,564 lbs of recyclable materials, which were later correctly processed and entered into the circular economy.

Rocío is a civil engineer, social entrepreneur, and climate activist. She works with #HaciendoEco where she connects with local governments to improve solid waste management.