Home  Introduction   How to Use   Contents   Resources 

Learning from the Maya About Diversity, Culture and Ecology~Teacher’s and Parent’s Guide
with Maya Arts and Crafts of Guatemala/Artes y Artesanías Mayas de Guatemala Coloring Book

page 1 | page 2

Lesson 3. Put It in a Reusable Bag: Relating Maya
Arts and Crafts to Ecology
(Grades 2-5)

Best used after Lesson 3: Bags, Baskets, Bundles, Gourds, and Nets


To help students

  • to realize that Maya people can teach us about taking better care of our environment and Mother Earth through their use of long lasting bags and nets made of natural materials
  • to gain understanding of how different materials biodegrade or do not decompose well


Background Information Often the Maya themselves know how to make the bags and nets they need. Artisans in many places throughout Guatemala construct them from several kinds of materials, including wool and cotton, (see page 10) and many also have attractive traditional designs. The boy making a small shoulder bag (see page 11) and the man fashioning a large cargo net (see page 12) use the biodegradable fibers of the large leaves of maguey plants. (See background on page 11.) Such bags, or anything made of natural materials can biodegrade without polluting and become a part of the earth again through decomposition. Of course, growing the plant materials for making bags and other crafts must be managed carefully to replenish what is used.

Maya bags made of maguey fibers
In a Maya household, bags and ropes made of maguey fibers, hang from a natural hook made from a tree limb.

The Maya make bags and nets that last a long time, and by reusing them they have less need of plastic bags. Before about thirty years ago, they hardly used plastic bags or anything of made plastic at all. Even today, in Guatemala a customer buying a food item in a market or store might receive it wrapped in a large banana leaf! Shoppers bring their own bags or other containers to carry home purchases. Yet now in Guatemala — as in Canada and the USA — plastic bags are often given to buyers. At the same time, more people everywhere (including the Maya) are using long lasting bags of natural materials as they become aware of their ecological importance.

Still, large numbers of people use plastic bags resulting in litter which pollutes the environment. Because plastic does not generally biodegrade, such trash makes cities and the countryside ugly and can contain harmful chemicals that damage the environment. In Guatemala, plastic garbage may be at times burned, releasing poisonous smoke.

Research to produce biodegradable plastics bags has had some success and various stores in England give them to customers. Still, nearly everywhere, even if stores and supermarkets often give shoppers recyclable bags they are non-biodegradable. Long lasting bags win out as the best choice for those who want to contribute to the health of our Mother Earth. The Mayas’ bags and nets made of natural biodegradeable materials give us a good example to follow.

Knowing about the amount of time required to biodegrade different kinds of garbage helps us to realize the great importance of recycling and reusing as many things as possible. The following short list shows the length of time required to decompose the following materials:

bags made of plastic
Bags made from plastic for sale in a Guatemala market. In another area of the market bags made of natural materials would be found.

paper ---> 1 month

cotton cloth ---->  5 months

rope made of sisal ------> 14 months

a piece of wood --------------------> 13 years

a tin can ------------------------------------> 100 years

an aluminum can -----------------------------------> 500 years

a plastic container ---------> it is not known how long it will take to decompose, perhaps never!

page 1 | page 2