15 plastic water bottles, various sizes. 15 plastic bottle caps, various colors. 8 glass bottles, 22 aluminum cans, 12 clear plastic cups, 5 8-oz styrofoam coffee cups, 3 plastic coffee lids. 7 plastic straws, unwrapped. 1 pair of hotel slippers, worn twice. 2 Q-tips, 2 cotton balls, 4 single-use face wipes. 1 plastic prescription pill bottle, previously containing Malarone. 1 travel-size contact solution bottle, BioTrue. 3 mini containers each of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, partially emptied. At least 6 mini bars of soap. Countless: paper napkins, paper bags, plastic bags, food wrappers, aluminum foil, plastic trays and yogurt cups, plastic cutlery, plastic, plastic, plastic.
When you start to think about trash, you see it everywhere. This is what I learned while reporting on the problem of solid waste pollution in Guatemala. And as soon as I started looking into this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much garbage I was personally responsible for. The above is an incomplete list of some of the things I threw away in two weeks of reporting. Every time I handed money to someone in exchange for something inevitably wrapped in or containing some tiny amount of plastic: trash. Every time a drink arrived at the table with an unwrapped straw or a plastic spoon set beside it automatically: trash. Even the clothes on my back and the shoes on my feet: future trash.
On the beach where the Motagua River finishes its nearly 300 mile journey from the dumps of Guatemala City to the Caribbean, I saw a lot of shoes. Specifically, Crocs and their lookalikes – cheap plastic shoes worn until they broke and then tossed away. Same with small plastic toys, combs, mascara tubes, foam playmats, rubber balls, toothbrushes. Then there were the bits of medical waste carried by the river, including used syringes, IV bags, and bottles of disinfectant. Beneath it all, crispy drifts of wave-worn Styrofoam piled up like dingy snow.
It’s overwhelming to see all that detritus in one place, but even worse to try to imagine the piled up totality of discarded objects we’re each responsible for. Trash is especially visible in Guatemala, thanks to a lack of collection services or adequate landfills, but that doesn’t mean that there’s more of it there than anywhere else. In Seattle, where I live, the city sends 100 trains cars stuffed full of trash to the landfill every day (and that’s after the recyclable and compostable material have already been sorted out).
This past year, some U.S. cities and organizations have issued a ban on plastic straws, but most of these measures are so specific as to seem ridiculous. For example, Starbucks agreed to eliminate plastic straws from all their stores, only to introduce an edible cookie straw that comes, yes, wrapped in plastic. Standing on one of the shores where all this plastic eventually ends up, I could see that straws are not going to make or break the bigger problem of having an economy set up to prioritize disposability and convenience over renewability and health.
The next morning, when my coffee arrived with a scissored-in-half plastic drink straw resting on the saucer next to it (but why???) I felt simultaneously hopeless and like I should start laughing. Compared to the scene on the beach the day before, this was a small offense. And yet it was indicative of the thoughtless and automatic way we use these materials every day, because they’re so cheap and, in most parts of the world, the consequences are too far away to bother thinking about. Until we understand that everything we use once and then forget about continues to exist without us — that everything we touch is, or will be, trash — we fail to understand the real story.
Amelia Urry was a Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Fellow.