Plastic wrappers and parcels that start off in Americans’ recycling bins end up at illegal dumpsites and industrial furnaces — and inside the lungs of people in Muzaffarnagar.
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 María Xalapán, 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.
As we poured water into a jug to be added to the ashes in the bucket, Maria (not her real name) asked in Spanish, “Why does making soap have anything to do with plastic?” Maria and another 50 or so Indigenous women from her village, in the highlands of southeastern Guatemala, had gathered ashes from their home fires and filled water jugs to bring to their community centre for a workshop with a local craftswoman on soap making; the first step of which is mixing ash with water and letting it sit…..