Guatemala landfill feeds ‘trash islands’ hundreds of miles away in Honduras

Guatemala landfill feeds ‘trash islands’ hundreds of miles away in Honduras

  • An estimated 20,000 metric tons of trash from the Guatemala City landfill flows down the Motagua River into the Caribbean each year, where it washes ashore on Honduran beaches and forces residents to form cleanup efforts.
  • While cleanup efforts are a good temporary solution, the root cause of the problem is poor waste management infrastructure at the landfill, something that has proven extremely difficult to address due to complex social issues and the cost of relocating waste disposal sites to other parts of the country.
  • The trash also comes from illegal dumping along the river.
  • As a stopgap, some stakeholders are focused on catching the trash in the rivers before it can reach the ocean.

GUATEMALA CITY — After heavy rains, hotel workers and other residents in Honduras walk up and down beaches picking up everything from plastic bottles to toys to medical waste. They’ve become experts at garbage cleanup. It piles up in the sand if they don’t move quickly, and then tourists might complain or even stop coming, which could be disastrous for the many residents who rely on work in local hotels and shops.

Some towns on Honduras’s Caribbean coast have banned single-use plastics and implemented more rigorous recycling plans. But the trash keeps coming. A lot of it, it turns out, doesn’t come from the locals, but rather from landfills and illegal dumping sites hundreds of miles away, in inland Honduras and neighboring Guatemala.

“It goes into the food chain and even disrupts coral,” says Jenny Myton, the conservation program director at the Coral Reef Alliance. “This affects everything — animal life and health, but also the economy and tourism.”

Guatemala’s 485-kilometrer (300-mile) Motagua River is one of the biggest conduits of this torrent of waste. An estimated 20,000 metric tons of trash from the Guatemala City landfill and illegal dumping sites flows into the river on its way to the Caribbean each year. Ocean currents push it northeast, where it washes up on the beaches of Tela and other Honduran towns. The rest of it can stay floating out at sea for as long as six months before sinking to the bottom.

The problem has elicited cleanup efforts, recycling programs and garbage divergence plans by everyone from local communities to international NGOs. But many of them also admit that these are only temporary solutions. The root cause of the problem — garbage collection and storage at landfills across the region — will be much harder to make right.

“A new waste management plan must be set up for Guatemala and Honduras, including both citizens and industries,” a 2020 study on waste management in the region said. “Recycling and integrated waste management systems should be implemented everywhere within a country (including smaller towns and villages in the mainland).”

Fixing the landfill

The Guatemala City landfill is located in the Zone 3 neighborhood in the city’s north, and takes in everything from food waste to plastic to medical equipment — and not just from the city proper. Thirteen surrounding municipalities also rely on the landfill as their principal disposal site, which then feeds into the local watershed and ultimately pollutes the Caribbean hundreds of miles away.

Landfills may just look like simple holes in the ground where waste piles up. But they’re actually complex operations with sophisticated technology, intended to prevent waste from creating public health issues and environmental harm. Modern landfills usually include multiple “cells” for controlled dumping, a drainage and rainwater collection system, and a network of pipes and vents to prevent the buildup of methane gas, which is emitted as organic waste breaks down over time.

But the landfill in Guatemala City is decades behind technologically. Garbage piles up dozens of meters high, so unstable that it can shift like an ocean current, swallowing up garbage pickers unexpectedly. The lack of methane vents can lead to gas buildup, fires and toxic smoke.

And the lack of a formal water drainage system has led to a naturally flowing river of contaminated liquids moving out of the dump.

“I’ve rarely seen such a blatant and concrete example of unintended consequences,” said Trae Holland, executive director of Safe Passage, an NGO working in the area. “From a sanitation and waste management standpoint, the medieval approach in Guatemala City is transcending its physical location to become an international problem.”

Trash floating in the Caribbean. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Power)

Guatemala City municipal authorities didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment about what it’s doing to actively address waste management at the landfill. Some organizations tell Mongabay they’ve worked closely with officials to improve the situation, saying they want this problem gone as much as anyone else does. Others say there’s little evidence that the government is taking any environmental action whatsoever.

In recent years, the government pushed back the landfill so it wasn’t encroaching on residential buildings. It decorated the entrance gate with flowers. But the prevailing waste management strategies appear to have gone unchanged.

“It’s this Arcadian paradise,” Holland says. “The front looks like the entrance to a university now that the garbage has been pushed away from the front. This is obviously not solving any problems, right? It’s just a PR move.”

But problems at the dump aren’t just technological. They’re also wrapped up in the political and social struggles of the country. It’s expensive and controversial, for example, to create a new landfill somewhere else. Zoning can be complicated, not only because the area must be strategically located to mitigate environmental hazards, but also because nearby residents and businesses would fight back against the plans.

Unregulated dumping has given rise to an entire informal economy for the impoverished residents of Zone 3, with families entering the landfill each day to pick out plastics and other items that can be sold to middlemen recyclers. Children used to pick trash out of the river, a practice that’s now banned. Gangs oversee a lot of what’s bought and sold there, complicating efforts by groups looking to help struggling families.

During the pandemic, the landfill shut down several times, putting so much stress on trash pickers that several households reported suicides by family members, Holland says. Gangs couldn’t collect extortion fees, which led to kidnappings of children and retaliatory violence.

As difficult as the last several years have been, Holland says, the pandemic may have gotten city officials’ attention for the better and may, in the long run, lead to improved waste management.

“The municipality, I can tell you right now, woke up to some of the issues in that community and in that zone that they were ignoring before,” he says. “And I feel very strongly, in fact, that that’s going to be a net positive.”

Temporary solutions

With systematic changes to the Guatemala City landfill slow to come, some stakeholders have shifted their focus downriver, where the trash is freer from the same complex social and political issues.

The Ocean Cleanup, an international organization engineering creative ways to remove plastic from the oceans, came to Guatemala in 2018 in hopes of developing a method for intercepting the trash on the Motagua River.

“If something is done about the source, that would be ideal, but I think we have to recognize that the brunt of this is more complicated than that,” CEO Boyan Slat tells Mongabay. He adds, “We asked ourselves, what is the fastest, most cost-effective way to stop this plastic from going into the ocean?”

Slat, a Dutch entrepreneur, founded The Ocean Cleanup when he was just 18, after having gone viral for a TEDx talk about what innovative technologies can bring to conservation efforts. His organization has raised millions of dollars since then, but has also been criticized for its flawed technology and lack of results.

In Guatemala, its pilot project involved installing “Interceptor 006,” a fence 50 meters (164 feet) wide and 8 m (26 ft) high that’s designed to catch plastic in its mesh while letting the water through.

The Interceptor 006 catching garbage during its trial this year. (Photo courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup)

In a video released by The Ocean Cleanup, the trash fence starts out looking like it’s going to succeed. The trash stops at the fence and starts to build up, with the water passing through free of plastic. But after a while, the sheer magnitude of trash gets to be too much and the infrastructure starts to bend. Then holes form and the plastic pushes through.

“We thought we truly cracked the nut,” Slat says, “that we collected what’s roughly a million kilos [2.2 million pounds] of plastic … and then seeing a big chunk of that disappear again, almost literally slipping through our fingers. In the matter of two hours, we went from the highest high to a substantial low.”

The Ocean Cleanup is working on a new type of interceptor that hasn’t operated anywhere else, and which will look “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” when compared to the previous one, Slat says. However, he doesn’t divulge any details about its design.

He also says the organization is working with local partners to develop recycling and incineration programs as well as methods of waste fraction (the sorting of waste into biodegradables, glass, batteries and other categories).

The Guatemala 2.0 solution, as Slat calls it, should be ready by the end of the first quarter of 2023. And while it won’t solve the waste management issues at the landfill or stop illegal dumping at different points along the Motagua River, it should help slow the amount of trash entering the Caribbean.

Banner image: Trash floats near a boat in the Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Caroline Power. 

Citation: Kikaki, A., Karantzalos, K., Power, C. A., & Raitsos, D. E. (2020). Remotely sensing the source and transport of marine plastic debris in Bay Islands of Honduras (Caribbean Sea). Remote Sensing12(11), 1727. doi:10.3390/rs12111727

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