Guatemala’s Trash Problem and One Pueblo’s Response

15 April 2011 at 10:00 4 comments

Totonicapan Trash Pile

Ice cream wrappers, dirty diapers, plastic bags and rotting fruit have a tendency of stewing together into one the most truly foul concoctions known to man.  This, unfortunately, is the recipe I find on most patches of green alongside roads and in the cities of Totonicapan, Guatemala.

The beautiful landscape of the highlands is ruined for me when I ride a bus into town. I have yet to see a cow grazing on a patch of grass that is not littered with candy wrappers and plastic bags. I doubt the cows appreciate the bits of plastic among their graminoids. Littering has even turned into a sport for some of the younger kids. I have seen young children no more than five years old playing “who can throw the empty bottle furthest into the street?” It breaks my heart.

Totonicapan Trash Sign

How do you reverse this behavior when there is no immediate alternative? Check out these statistics from the Pan American Health Organization (italics mine):

“Nowhere in Guatemala is there a system for the final disposal of solid waste. In the urban areas it is estimated that 47 % of the population has the benefit of solid waste collection. The rest of the people burn, bury, or toss out their trash. In rural areas only 4% of the population has the benefit of trash collection services.

Cojxac Trash River


You can imagine how burning trash must smell, not to mention the damage to the environment. But is there even an alternative? Trash cans are a rarity, and home trash pickup services are non-existent in these rural highlands. With the constant influx of snack foods and beverages wrapped in plastic packaging, there is simply no place for it all to go. I live in a country with an efficient solid waste disposal system, but the people of Toto are not so lucky. With no place for trash but in the street, I can’t blame Guatemala’s youth for establishing littering as a routine.

Nimasac Trash Bin

One of the trash bins set up by the "Jóvenes Emprendedores" (Youth Entrepreneurs) Program at ASDIR

Fortunately, Asociación ASDIR, a microfinance institution in the area, has taken matters into its own hands. In 2008 it started a youth entrepreneur program which placed trash bins throughout the small village of Nimasac. The community now runs its own collections services which take the solid waste to a landfill. The walls of the local school have the words (in Spanish) “Throw all trash into the bins”. Once again, community organization has responded to a lack of government action – similar to the neighborhood’s response to crime. The effect is a relatively clean community in a region littered with pollution. Without government help, the town and ASDIR have organized against the trash problem.

It is difficult to reverse a learned behavior. I, for example, will never in my life be capable of rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. My Guatemalan housemates will never accept eating eggs and beans without tortillas. The damage caused by learning to litter, however, should be enough to change the region of Toto from its own trash bin to its own source of pride and joy.

Gustavo is a Kiva Fellow working with Asociación ASDIR in Totonicapán, Guatemala.

Join the Amigos de ASDIR lending team on Kiva today!

Gustavo’s previous posts:

Corn People: A Staple Food and the Key to Human Creation

The Microcredit Saleswoman

Community Vigilantism Keeps Toto Tranquil

The Highland Commute

Entry filed under: Anti-Poverty Focus, ASDIR, Client Voice, Facilitation of Savings, Family and Community Empowerment, Guatemala, Innovation, KF14 (Kiva Fellows 14th Class), Social Performance. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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  • 1. Skip Hire Edinburgh  |  3 June 2012 at 16:17

    Howdy, that was an excellent read through. It always great when someone takes the time to inform, because you have.

  • […] Guatemala’s Trash Problem and One Pueblo’s Response Country: Guatemala / Fellow: Gustavo Visalli (KF14) Most places in Guatemala lack a formal system for trash collection and it shows. Fortunately, Gustavo’s partner MFI has taken matters into its own hands, establishing a community collection service without government assistance. […]

    • 3. Jami  |  17 May 2011 at 07:44

      Hmm, I am not convinced that dumping trash at the landfills is so eco friendly a solution. Whatever happened to recycling?

  • 4. Kieran Ball  |  15 April 2011 at 12:11

    I noticed the same when I was in Guatemala a few years back. It’s such a shame as it’s an incredible country. Glad to know someone is doing something about it.

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