Beauty From Trash



An ecomural constructed of plastic waste symbolizes change in Mixco, Guatemala.

The 1960s were a period of economic growth in Guatemala. To address the need for housing for young working families in and around the city of Mixco (now part of the municipality of Guatemala City), the government obtained financing from the Inter-American Development Bank to build a residential neighborhood, or “Colonia”, called Primero de Julio, northwest of metropolitan Guatemala City. 

The first residents moved in in 1967, paying the equivalent of US$2.80 a month for mortgages on houses priced at US$445. Houses were assigned via raffle so as to avoid disagreements and promote harmony within the neighborhood. Operating like a small city, the region was self-managed, with residents running the community’s education, public transit, health center, and markets. A number of prominent Guatemalans have lived in Primero de Julio, including Andrea Cardona (the first Guatemala woman to climb Mount Everest), Lázaro Diéguez (the first Guatemalan to get a master's degree in radiology and nuclear protection), and Édgar Gutiérrez, who was the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the early 2000s. 

Now, as Guatemala City has grown, urban sprawl has reached the environs of Primero de Julio. Two new malls have been developed nearby, and new colonias are under construction. 

Crime, too, has reached Primero de Julio. Neto Bran, Mixco’s mayor since 2016, vowed early in his tenure to stamp out violence with various initiatives including banning alcohol sales from shops and taking over the soccer field — areas where criminals congregate.

Gang members replied by firing three shots at the mayor's office. The arrest of a nationally known gang leader’s brother brought temporary respite, but being so close to main roads means residents have learned to be vigilant to new threats.

Against this backdrop of urban spread and increasing crime, one Primero de Julio resident, Christofer Rodríguez, wants to keep his neighborhood clean. In 2019, the 30-year-old — who has been passionate about recycling and the environment for as long as he can remember — founded Conciencia Verde (“green conscience”) with the broad goal of improving his neighborhood.

Rodríguez says his neighborhood is like many others in the country — mainly safe but with the constant threat of opportunistic violence. He wants Conciencia Verde to be an antidote to that. Specifically, the organization aims to rescue the Guacamayas ravine (now strewn with rubbish), to reforest the area, and currently, to create an Ecomural made from discarded bottlecaps. 

The Ecomural is the product of many hands and, to date, 320,000 bottle caps. The gold of its jaguar comes from Gallo caps — the national beer. “We are a group of 15 people [mainly volunteers] who seek to take care of our planet and, in the process, get a Guinness record for the largest mural in the world made from plastic caps,” Rodríguez explained. He expects that, to complete the mural, they will need one million caps. Consequently, he has pulled schools, colleges, and churches into his project, encouraging them to collect caps and help place them on the mural.

The mural has received national media coverage, which has prompted a variety of people and companies to support the project. Some have sent caps, others glue, and a group in Cobán — a city in Guatemala’s Highlands region, where people grow coffee and cardamom — has expressed interest in doing a similar ecomural in their city. Rodríguez has ambitious plans for any resources he might obtain — start a business teaching people how to recycle, make goods to sell, create youth programs, and promote economic development. 

The recent failure to pass a nationwide recycling law has left recycling to the municipalities. Most municipalities lack the necessary resources to turn recyclables into reusable products, not to mention that sorting garbage for recycling is not something the majority of Guatemalans have experience with.  Indeed, the complications inherent in sorting waste into seven separate categories was one of the major reasons the proposed national law was returned to its congressional committee. Rodríguez believes that the beauty of his ecomural is its ongoing impact on the community's understanding of what recycling is. 

The mural, now a focal point of its neighborhood, has created “profound change” in the region, Rodríguez said, especially among children. The group is now waiting for permission from local authorities to begin work on cleaning up the ravine, which Rodríguez calls “one more lung of Guatemala.” Conciencia Verde plans eventually to turn Guacamayas into an ecological park — specifically to bring back various bird species and to encourage families to enjoy nature.

Beyond its environmental projects, said Rodríguez, “Conciencia Verde seeks to promote art in Guatemala, and what better place to start than in the neighborhood I was born in? In the future I hope we can make more murals to encourage art, culture, values, and, above all, recycling.”

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Nic Wirtz
Nic Wirtz
Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist and producer covering Central America. Specializing in politics, economics, and sport, his work has featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. Contact him via LinkedIn, Twitter, or email at [email protected].
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