A group of Indigenous Mayan women are helping curb a plastic pollution crisis in their village, while breaking gender stereotypes and embracing their identity of protectors of the environment.

The recycling treatment plant was once an old municipal laundry, situated in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala near the popular tourist destination Lake Atitlán. Three of the seven recycler women are busy at work: Juana is removing the labels from the beer bottles she had left to soak overnight. Clara is sorting through a large pile of plastics, cartons, metal scraps, and glass, while also emptying bottles into a bigger container—producing a toxic-looking cocktail of old beer, orange juice, oil, shampoo, and everything in between. The ladies must collect and separate every bottle cap, and separate plastic bottles by color. They are meticulous and do not make mistakes, as the demands of the recycling buyer are strict: Produce the highest grade of plastic for food consumption by making sure the bottles are as clean as possible. 

Elena, the leader of the recycler group, shows up with her baby and lunch. She lays out some chuchitos, a traditional corn delicacy, and a milky wheat drink called Corazón de Trigo;  the recyclers wash their hands and sit down on broken plastic crates to eat. After lunch, they sweep the warehouse floor, place all the bags inside and lock the doors so no one could take the tediously cleaned materials. The next day, the women will go to local businesses and collect new materials.

These recyclers, or “mujeres recicladoras,” are Indigenous Tz’utujil Maya women who are changing perceptions about environmentalism, recycling, and traditional gender roles within Atitlán. There are a myriad of factors that make these women excellent environmentalists but, in general, women recycle more often than men, know more about climate change, and are more likely to advocate for environmental regulations. 

Elena's mother, Doña Maria, at the recycling center. Photo by Deimante Lersten.

The recicladoras’ work is part of a wider recycling project launched in 2017 that aims to combat pervasive plastic waste in Lake Atitlán. Plastics are cheap and do not decompose naturally, and the area’s remote villages are difficult for recycling buyers’ trucks to reach. As a result, used plastic ends up in water, soil, and air. If left on the ground, it travels to the lake or slowly sinks into the soil, shaping a new landscape for the next generation to grapple with. Misplaced solid waste is the most frequently visible material contaminating the lake and plastic is the easiest to spot, as it often floats on top of the water and gets pushed out to the lakeshore. 

“A lot of plastic is produced, but it is not used well. That is why we are collaborating for the environment. It is not an easy job for these women, but their motivation is mostly environmental,” said Elena. “We do it for the lake and for the soil. Without water there is no life. If we contaminate the soil, we will not have any good fruit to eat.” The lake is already highly contaminated and while previous generations could safely drink directly from the lake, today even swimming is not advisable. 

Further, up to 50 percent of households in Atitlán burn plastics and plastic waste deposited in dumpsters sometimes gets burnt due to lack of space. Burning plastic releases toxic fumes containing various pollutants which settle on land, crops, wildlife, and bodies of water. Humans can be affected directly or indirectly, especially through the consumption of animal products such as meat, fish, and dairy.

Elena was the first person in her town to join the recycling initiative in December  2017, and became president of the group. She grew up in Atitlán with her parents and six siblings—“my father always told us not to litter,” she said—and lives in the same town with her two daughters and a baby boy while her husband works in Guatemala City. While attending boarding school in the capital, Elena developed a deeper appreciation for the nature she grew up among, noting “Atitlán is unique and beautiful and I want to take care of it.”

Trash at Lake Atitlán. Photo by Elena.

Elena and the other recicladoras are not only helping improve their environment, but have harnessed their knowledge about recycling  to strengthen their leadership skills. Studies have found that increasing one woman’s leadership capacity can also lead to her peers acting more independently and making decisions more freely. Elena’s perseverance and leadership helped build a strong and dedicated team of women, who respect and trust her. Because many great initiatives in Atitlán lack continuity and funding, having a strong, enthusiastic team is key to steadily reducing plastic pollution around the lake. 

“Before, all the weight was on me, I had to remind and tell them what to do. Now the women do everything themselves; they show initiative, I am very happy about that,” Elena said. “Every day we are getting to know each other, sharing our life experiences, and enjoying working together regardless of our differences.” The women share a deep appreciation for nature and organize independent clean-up initiatives together. “If I see empty plastic bottles left on the ground in the forest, I feel bad,” a recicladora named Anna explained. 

After China banned the import of bad quality, “dirty” plastic waste on Dec. 31, 2017, the buying prices of plastic waste dropped all over the world and many recyclables ended up in incinerators. The effects of this embargo, and plastic pollution associated with it, are felt in small Mayan towns in rural Guatemala. 

Indigenous populations struggle to manage waste in remote rural areas, and want municipalities to treat waste management as a necessity, not as a choice. “People do not feel responsible for their waste,” Elena said regretfully. “They do not analyze their own behavior when they litter or leave their domestic waste in coffee plantations.” The slopes of Atitlán provide the perfect environment to grow Guatemalan coffee, but the plantations are often used as illegal dumping grounds for domestic waste. The recicladoras wish that their community was required to classify and separate their waste, but town authorities are currently educating the community about waste management without introducing functioning curbside recycling or any sanctions for inappropriate waste disposal. 

The community’s neighboring town, San Pedro La Laguna, was the first in Guatemala to introduce a ban on disposable plastics and boasts much better recycling practices. The ban reinforced a national movement against irresponsible plastic use and educated the public, reaffirming the critical global need for more regional and national infrastructure for detecting and treating less durable materials such as plastic bags, food packaging, and single-use plastics. The infrastructure for the larger recycling initiative was made possible through the efforts and support of the local NGO Amigos del Lago Atitlán.

In San Pedro La Laguna, there are no informal women recyclers; instead, they work officially in municipal waste management. “People in our town think that we work for the municipality, but it’s not true. Some businesses really encourage us…and call us to come and collect the materials for recycling. It would be more convenient if we worked for the municipality,” noted Elena. If Elena and her team were  employed formally, they would have access to free health care, maternity and holiday leave.

Anna, Elena, and Juana enjoy a view of the lake during a break. Photo by Deimante Lersten.

Recycling has helped to slowly break the stigma against waste work. Elena believes that recycling efforts and other economic activities have improved the recicladoras’ social status. “When tourism began in San Juan La Laguna around six years ago, the men realized women were bringing in money. My husband used to be a machista…. Now he prepares coffee for me and helps me with housework. Men are not machista anymore as they used to be. I appreciate my husband because he lets me do what I want. He told me to do what I desire.” 

Not everyone is supportive of women-led recycling efforts, and working in waste management isn’t considered a noble activity, especially among Indigenous women. Many recyclers left Elena’s group soon after joining, citing familial pressures, the need to take care of housework and children, as well as the low pay. “Women should weave, wash clothes, help their families, but not do this…it is more acceptable to stay at home than to join the recycling group,” Elena explained, balking at this characterization.

“It is a dignified job, I don’t care if people criticize it.” 

Differences in acceptance across Atitlán suggests that there are generational and educational schisms that are harder to challenge. Juana said that “the people who tell me that my job is shameful are the same people who litter.” According to a local municipality officer who works with women, “there are men who are supportive, but others, more traditional ones, are not.”  

Indigenous Guatemalan women are particularly prone to discrimination, a result of both racism and systemic inequities. In 2011, 48 percent of Indigenous women were illiterate compared to 25 percent of men, and 19 percent of non-Indigenous women. Formal employment, healthcare, and education are difficult for Indigenous communities to access, making it even more complicated to engage in stigmatized activities.

Recycling—and the time consuming process of cleaning plastics for reuse—is often associated with housework, and can further promote a gender pay gap. “Everyone should recycle,” said Elena. Yet recycling can offer an additional steady income for weavers of traditional textiles, who represent a large contingent of Guatemala’s one million artisans and whose business experiences significant seasonal changes. During the rainy season, when tourists buy fewer textiles, weavers’ pay can drop by well over 60 percent. Although income from part-time recycling is similar to a low season weaver’s income, weaving is more socially acceptable in Atitlán. 

Elena organizes local transport to pick up recyclables. Photo by Deimante Lersten.

Elena is proud that recycler groups in other Atitlán towns and villages are doing well. “In one town, three women collect a whole van of recyclables every day. I really admire these women. I am glad that people collect more than us, because that means force.”

In September the Guatemalan government released an accord banning all single-use plastics, and gave stakeholders two years to prepare for the prohibition. Although the accord has an uncertain future once the new, conservative president Alejandro Giammattei steps into office in January 2020, it has given recicladoras more hope for a less polluted environment. 


Deimante Lersten is a researcher in the field of anthropology, environment and development. She has recently conducted fieldwork in Atitlán, Guatemala, funded by an award from the Tropical Agriculture Association.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.