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Everything you touch is trash and it all ends up here

The World’s Plastic Addiction Is On Horrifying Display In These Photographs

When you start looking for trash, you see it everywhere. It flows past you every day, an endless stream of bags and takeout boxes and disposable forks, the blister packs and laminated foils that come wrapped around every tube of toothpaste or plastic toy or power charger you buy, and then, later, the tubes and toys and cords themselves. It’s even the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet. Once and future trash is everywhere around us all the time, for a moment, before it disappears into a distant landfill — out of sight, ditto mind.

We wanted to know where all that plastic trash goes. We met on a fellowship focused on water in the American West — both journalists with a background in environmental issues, a writer and a photographer. We were both obsessed with the invisible currents and infrastructure that shape the landscape in ways we may or may not ever see.

In Guatemala, those currents move through the Motagua River. The country’s largest river reaches two-thirds of the way across the Central American isthmus, 300 miles from its source in the remote central highlands of Guatemala to its mouth on the Caribbean’s Mesoamerican Reef, the second-longest stretch of coral in the world. Along the way, it passes Guatemala City, the country’s busy capital, crowded with 3 million people and creased with deep ravines that, in the rainy season, funnel floodwaters loaded with refuse and waste to the river.

For years, the tides of trash have washed up on the beaches of Guatemala and neighboring Honduras, burying the small fishing communities in feet-deep drifts of Styrofoam and other plastic: combs, toothbrushes, mascara tubes, Crocs, flip-flops, colorful snakes of plastic rope, molded foam mats, rubber balls, action figures, soda bottles, syringes, IV bags, half-empty bottles of disinfectant. Just offshore, reefs of plastic bags float on the waves like icebergs jutting above the water and hiding even more beneath.

In El Quetzalito, locals are charged with maintaining the government’s recently installed “bio-fences.” Constructed from large plastic bottles webbed together with netting, they act as superficial barriers to stop floating trash from reaching the mouth of the Motagua River as it empties into the Caribbean Sea.
Celia Talbot Tobin

In the small community of El Quetzalito, locals clear the beaches with rakes and wheelbarrows. In previous decades they might have made a living from fishing or subsistence farming, but now they work for the government’s environment ministry, which has struggled to address the problem of pollution along the Motagua. While the victims of this pollution are local, the problem is ultimately global: An estimated 80% of ocean plastic comes from “mismanaged waste” like what washes out of Guatemala City’s dump every year. As bag bans and straw strikes go into effect in American cities, this major source of pollution is left unaddressed.

Toward the end of the three weeks we spent in Central America, we tried to tally up all the trash each of us had left behind: 15 plastic water bottles, various sizes. 15 plastic bottle caps, various colors. 8 glass bottles, 22 aluminum cans, 12 clear plastic cups, 5 8-ounce Styrofoam coffee cups, 3 plastic coffee lids. 7 plastic straws. 1 pair of microfiber-and-foam hotel slippers, worn twice. 4 single-use face wipes. 1 plastic prescription pill bottle, previously containing a six-day supply of Malarone. 1 travel-size contact solution bottle. 3 mini containers each of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, partially emptied. As for plastic bags, handed out everywhere despite our best efforts to avoid them, we lost count.

We began to understand trash not as something that is irresponsibly disposed of but as something that is irresponsibly created in the first place. Plastic, especially, is ubiquitous and unavoidable, churned out as casually as it is thrown away: a drinking straw scissored in half and served alongside our morning coffees, a cheap pair of shoes worn out too quickly, a plastic bag to hold the fruit we bought at the market. Its source is somewhere far away, invisible, but the tide is ever flowing.

El Quetzalito sits at the mouth of the Motagua River, where it empties into the Caribbean. Here, as in a few other local communities, small educational projects are underway. Some of them are taking an artistic approach, such as building extracurricular school structures out of collected plastic bottles that are filled with more collected soft plastic.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Like many Central American countries, Guatemala has few recycling plants. In the small community of El Quetzalito — the last stop before the river’s trash meets the sea — most recycling collected is trucked 300 kilometers west to Guatemala City, back along the same river it floated down in the first place.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Private waste recollection facilities for the country exist only in Guatemala City, where recyclable material, like the paper seen here, is separated by type and compressed.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Paper in a recycling recollection facility.
Celia Talbot TobinPaper is separated by type and weight at a recollection facility in Guatemala City.
Paper is separated by type and weight at a recollection facility in Guatemala City.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Tidal pools form on the beaches alongside the mouth of the Motagua, where trash — some of which has traveled along the entire length of the river — is emptied into the Caribbean, just shy of the Mesoamerican Reef.
Celia Talbot Tobin
For most of their existence, villages on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast have made a living off of fishing. With ecosystems becoming ever more vulnerable, that future is no longer certain.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Mounds of plastic and Styrofoam pile up on Guatemala’s beaches, filled with everything from the expected soda bottle to combs, toothbrushes, Crocs, action figures, syringes, and IV bags.
Celia Talbot Tobin
Guatemala’s only official landfill, located in the country’s busy capital of 3 million people, is the largest in Central America. The Motagua starts in the highlands of the west and passes directly through the city, creased with deep ravines that funnel rainy season floodwaters loaded with waste into the river.
Celia Talbot Tobin
In El Quetzalito, at the mouth of the river, locals clear the beaches with rakes and wheelbarrows, a small team enlisted by the federal government to serve as the last barrier between the rest of the country’s waste and the ocean.
Celia Talbot Tobin

This story was made possible by support from the International Women Media Foundation. To see more work by Celia Talbot Tobin and Amelia Urry, visit their websites.