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Voices From the Field: Studying a Plastic Waste Crisis Through an Anthropological Lens

By Mayari Hengstermann

Mayari Hengstermann at a local shop in Santa María Xalapán
Mayari Hengstermann, Ph.D., at a local shop in Santa María Xalapán filled with junk food packaged in plastic (Photo courtesy of Mayari Hengstermann)

For nealy a year, I've been working on an NIEHS-funded project called ECOLECTIVOS, a portmanteau word combined from the Ancient Greek οἶκος "home" and from the Latin collectivus "collective." As an anthropologist, it is always important to recognize the connection between culture and behavior. Our team is investigating how plastic waste combustion affects human health in Indigenous communities of Santa Maria Xalapan, a mountain in eastern Guatemala. The idea for this project sprang from a related study, the Household Air Pollution Intervention Network (HAPIN) Trial, which I worked on for several years. For that work, we studied how people adapt to using new cookstoves that ran on liquefied petroleum gas instead of biomass, such as charcoal or wood.

During that study, we learned that people burn plastic in their stoves as fuel or as a way to dispose of trash. That observation prompted us to wonder what the health effects might be among Indigenous communities that burn plastic for fuel. Relevant literature has shown that the hazardous chemical components of plastic and main disposal methods pose significant risks and have negative effects on agriculture production, water quality, biodiversity and human health ( Halden 2010 ). Currently, we are looking at strategies that address plastic waste while targeting barriers, such as lack of legislation and waste managment programs, insufficient infrastructure, resistance to change, and financial issues, and enablers for scale-up among other rural areas from Guatemala that seek to replicate successful interventions. This, however, is a complex process because it involves a number of unique aspects and a wide range of local circumstances.

As an anthropologist, learning historical context is crucial to understanding cultural practices. The Santa Maria Xalapan region is home to Xinca Indigenous communities encompassing about 85,000 inhabitants with a territorial extension that was three times bigger during the pre-colonial period before the 16th century. Xalapan remains organized in an ancestral way, based on principles, values, and territory. This area has been constantly expropriated through supplementary titles from landowners, farmers, and non-Indigenous authorities and has been flanked by several licenses assigned to international industries for mining explorations.

This was an area with abundant natural resources, which was an essential part of the Xinca's identity and livelihood, providing means to eat, cook, income and materials to build peoples' houses. Nowadays, the climate crisis has brought calamities, such as more droughts, longer wildfire seasons, frequency and intensity of hurricanes, increased floodings to these people, threatening their very livelihoods and ecosystems. Also, since most of this population depend on biomass to cook, trees are rapidly cut, further accelerating erosion. As a result, the scarcity and pollution of these natural resources has created a dry, deforested, and polluted landscape that exhibits a high plastic-related toxicity where all the plastic waste has been dumped and then incinerated.

These Indigenous communities see themselves not as owners of the land but as caretakers of the natural resources of their Uta'Naru "Mother Earth." It has been their condition of marginalization and poverty that has exposed Indigenous communities to an inexorable amount of plastics. Items made at low cost and primarily designed to last only one use are constantly burned for disposal, contributing more and more to the problem of the degradation of soil, water sources, and air. Although there is a resistance to allowing foreigners to access the area of Xalapan to protect their territory, plastic pollution crosses all their territories.

Most of this plastic waste comes from low-quality, non-nutritious packaged foods. Food is central to their sense of identity, and since the pre-colonial times maize has been a physiological determinant to peoples' survival. But junk food and sodas have made their way to remote, rural communities where poverty, income insecurity, and illiteracy have led to poor nutrition. Therefore, along with environmental pollution and loss of soil quality, less nutritious diets contribute to the burden of various diseases and to the accumulation of inorganic toxic waste. This form of displacement describes a relationship characterized by conquest and extinction of Indigenous identity, knowledge, values, and practices. Plastics and microplastics are prevalent throughout this area, and they have made their way into bodies and minds, since the use and consumption of plastic has been normalized.

The importance of identities, world views, and meaning among cultures and community members has always been a key focus of anthropology. Anthropologists navigate symbolic cultural systems, customs, rituals, insights, different layers of local perspectives and experiences, as well as shared sentiments of cultural heritages, in search of a deeper understanding to disclose what is not evident: the complex issues within the social context, sociocultural dynamics within communities, and peoples' interactions in their social relationships.

Quantitative information is important, but it doesn't allow us to understand how and why some phenomena exist. Social science is increasily expected to help in solving these types of complex and multi-layered societal problems. However, we anthropologists encounter many challenges. For example, most of human actions work on an unconscious level and might be inconsistent with what people say they think or know, occasionally making reality incoherent and difficult to grasp. Therefore, for us anthropologists, reality cannot be translated solely into numbers and equations.

The anthropological lens gives me the opportunity to reflect upon the many challenges we are encountering as we try to promote behavior change. Projects with an implementation science approach that explore ways to improve adoption of interventions acknowledge the local diversities in waste practices related to worldviews and behaviors in which people and communities ponder the problem and act on waste solutions. However, this understanding does not automatically translate into effective action.

The problem of plastic waste is embedded in ambiguous perceptions, specific sociocultural realities, political frictions, economic asymmetries and global crisis. With some initiatives such as recycling, we are trying to transform discarded waste into something that has value. However, the impact of recycling would be small since much of this generated plastic is non-recyclable material. Corruption, inequality, poverty along with illiteracy, lack of municipal trash services and a vast amount of different types of plastic present in the communities, are the biggest hurdles to clean cooking fuels and adequate solid waste management. This situation calls for more collaboration and mobilization of many and different actors, especially the private sector, that can link and invest in waste solutions and more inclusive and community-driven initiatives that could reach beyond our scope of research.

Halden RU. 2010. Plastics and health risks. Annu Rev Public Health 31:179-94. [ Abstract ] [ Full Text ]