Written by Sarah Medor, Playas Sin Plasticos volunteer
Playas Sin Plasticos is a joint project between Galapagos Conservation Trust, the Galapagos Science Center, Exeter University and the Galapagos National Park.
Galapagos is not exempt from the issue of plastic pollution, especially on the island of San Cristobal. Last year we started the project of ‘Playas Sin Plasticos‘ to better understand the rate at which plastic accumulates at one of the desolate beaches on San Cristobal. Every month we travelled to the beach of Punta Pitt to perform macroplastic and microplastic surveys. We chose Punta Pitt because it is relatively far from civilisation and because it is geographically exposed to the ocean currents that often bring plastic to many of the beaches in Galapagos.
To conduct the monthly surveys, we relied on the help of local university students from the ‘Join Science‘ programme, in which students volunteer to help on the projects they are interested in at the Galapagos Science Center. Several of the students came on almost all the outings and became experts at employing the protocol used for the surveys. For any future Playas Sin Plasticos outings, these students will be in charge of organising and performing the surveys as well as analysing the plastic that is collected.
On a typical day, a group of 3-6 of us set off to Punta Pitt at around 6:30 in the morning with our captain Manolo Yepez. About two hours later we would arrive at Punta Pitt and begin the survey. First, we set up a 50m transect in which we collected all the macroplastic (any plastic that is larger than 5mm) and put it in bag. Then we split up into pairs to perform the microplastic survey. To do this, we laid down a quadrat (a square frame) at three spots along the strandline in the 50m transect and picked out all the microplastic pieces (any plastic that is smaller than 5mm) we found in that quadrat.
We almost always found microplastic laying on top of the sand and buried within, so we dug to a depth of 5cm and used sieves and a bucket of water to pick out all the little pieces. The students were patient throughout the microplastic survey because sometimes it took up to an hour to pick out all the pieces from a single quadrat. Then, to ensure we got plastic samples representative of the whole beach, we set up a second transect at the other end of the beach and repeated the whole process. Once we were done with the survey, Manolo would take us somewhere nearby to go for a quick snorkel after all the hard work. We often saw rays, turtles, sea lions and many types of fish. Then we ate lunch on the little boat and headed back to town.
We hope our work with Playas Sin Plasticos will provide insight about the accumulation rate of plastic and the patterns of its distribution to the scientific community and that this inspires further study on plastic pollution. Most significantly, this project has helped highlight the importance of picking up any plastic we might find on the beach or in the water in order to prevent it from becoming microplastic. This is crucial because once that piece of macroplastic plastic degrades into hundreds or thousands of little pieces, it becomes nearly impossible to clean up. By collaborating with local students, we hope these habits will spread to the community and create more consciousness about our consumption of plastic.
How can you help?
This work has been made possible thanks to GCT members, the Woodspring Trust, the Royal Geographical Society, Galapagos SharkSky Travel & Conservation and the British Embassy Quito.