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River of Trash

RIVER OF TRASH

How Plastic Pollution Is Making Central American Communities Uninhabitable

THE FISHERMEN STAND thigh-deep in the muddy water as our boat pulls up to the shore, grass shushing against the hull. It is a still, cool morning and mist wicks off the river as the sun begins to rise above the trees. Down the beach, a white egret standing in the shallows takes flight in a burst of sound as the fishermen lift their net to reveal its glinting catch. Beside them, half-submerged, a plastic soda bottle noses purposefully past, toward the sea.

As I step onto shore, I notice more bits of plastic lying among the reeds, half-buried in the mud, as well as stained scraps of cloth, bits of packing foam, a single cracked plastic sandal. Just beyond, Guatemala’s Motagua River pours into the Caribbean, carrying with it a daily freight of trash washed out of overcrowded city dumps and unofficial landfills hundreds of miles upstream.

Worldwide, an estimated 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land as “mismanaged waste.” Indeed, in Guatemala, there are almost no properly managed landfills and virtually no public water treatment plants. The result is a noxious chowder of sewage, industrial and agricultural runoff, and an ever-replenished flotilla of plastic trash, churning out from the river mouth toward the massive Mesoamerican reef, which has long supported rich biodiversity and fishing communities from Cancún to Nicaragua. Now, the beaches here and in neighboring Honduras are regularly buried in artificial tidewrack of toothbrushes, makeup containers, old syringes and bottles of IV fluid, action figures, streamers of plastic film, and foil chip bags.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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