Going back to a plastic pollution free Galapagos

Project Background

As a low-cost, versatile and durable product, plastic is an extremely useful material. Since it started to be mass produced in the 1950s, we have used huge quantities of it. This combined with our disposable lifestyles means that large amounts of plastics have entered the environment. An estimated 12 million tonnes of plastics enter our oceans each year, which can be transported across the world via ocean currents and gyres.

The retention of plastic within marine ecosystems causes well documented problems for wildlife all around the globe, including entanglement and ingestion. Not exempt from this problem, plastic is being found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), posing a threat to the unique biodiversity of Galapagos. In fact, at least 18 species have been recorded either entangled by plastic, or have been found to have ingested it.

© Andy Donnelly

Example of discarded fishing equipment washed up on a beach in Galapagos © Andy Donnelly

Whilst there is anecdotal evidence of the impact this is having on species in Galapagos, there has been little robust, scientific research into the problem or solutions. However, according to expert scientists and local community leaders, Galapagos is now best placed of anywhere in the world to show how a marine reserve can tackle plastic pollution in our oceans.

A multi-disciplinary programme, Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos, is bringing together experts from the fields of oceanography, marine biology, ecotoxicology, environmental psychology and even archaeology to combine ground-breaking scientific research with coordinated education and outreach to make Galapagos plastic pollution free once again.

The programme has three key areas:

  • Identify major sources and flows of plastic pollution into the Archipelago, leading to more effective clean up and knowledge of where to target education and policy instruments
  • Gather evidence on the impacts of plastics on Galapagos wildlife to inform species management plans and support communication campaigns
  • Work with businesses to find sustainable solutions, building on our education programmes to empower both local communities and tourist to adopt changes towards plastic usage.

Achievements to date

In May 2018, working with the Galapagos Science Center, GCT organised a Science to Solutions workshop on the Islands for key stakeholders from Galapagos, as well leading plastic scientists and researchers to address the key themes of modelling plastics in the system, behaviour change and impacts (read more about the workshop in our blog here).

During the workshop, attendees built a narrative around the coded information and visual characteristics of plastic items found on local beaches. These narratives form a vital component of evidencing the sources and journeys of common types of plastics found in Galapagos. Combining this information with oceanographic models of plastic movements, we are building a detailed picture of the primary sources of plastics reaching the Islands (Van Sebille et al Ocean Science (in press) .  

A second workshop with the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park (DGNP) in September 2018 helped to redefine and prioritise the programme activities, which is expected to be integrated into the overall DGNP ten year plan in 2019.

GCT is also supporting research into mapping the current extent of plastics on the Islands. This included initiating the first ever drone surveys for plastic along the coasts of Galapagos. We believe this survey technique has the capacity to greatly improve the efficiency of surveys, especially for the more remote beaches with limited access. Not only will this help to establish the current extent of plastics on the Islands, but also to identify those beaches that require imminent cleaning. Furthermore, the information ascertained from the types of plastics found will strengthen our evidence on the prominent sources of plastics.

Having carried the message of responsible plastic usage to over 3000 locals on San Cristobal via the local community group, Grupo Eco Cultural Organizado, we have expanded our community outreach. In 2018,  GCT supported a pilot for a coffee cup deposit return scheme, as well as a campaign on San Cristobal to encourage people to use paper bags instead of plastics bags. Awareness raising about the dangers of plastics to sharks and other marine species was also incorporated into last year’s annual Shark Day, with over 100 children attending.

GCT also ran a workshop in the UK with the Latin American Travel Association to explore the different number of disposable plastics used during a family holiday to Galapagos. Around 30 LATA members from across the tourism industry joined the session, all finding it very useful. Findings highlighted the need for airports in particular to rethink their use of single use plastics. Long term, we hope the data collected will enable us to highlight the most important areas to target for behaviour change.

Most recently, in September 2019 GCT, helped deliver a workshop in collaboration with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and University of Exeter in Quito, Ecuador. Attendees from Galapagos, mainland Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, United States, Brazil and the UK shared their progress monitoring plastic pollution, its impact on wildlife and mitigation strategies. The workshop is another major milestone in the programme’s efforts to create a multi-disciplinary, collaborative network that tackles this issue on a continental scale as we move from science to solutions.

Future Goals

GCT is supporting research to develop risk analyses for species impacted by plastics. This will include surveys to assess the impact of plastics on turtles, marine iguanas and manta rays. In order to gather further information on the sources and types of plastics in Galapagos, the programme will launch its first citizen science platform to allow members of the public to identify items found on the beaches. This data, along with future models of oceanographic currents between the different islands in Galapagos, will help us to further evidence the sources of plastics in the Archipelago. This information will be vital for influencing regulations to prevent plastics reaching the Islands.

How you can help

Please help us to make Galapagos plastic pollution free by donating today.

Coverage of the project

Our Chief Executive Sharon Johnson was interviewed by ITV News on May 29 2018 about this project which you can watch here. There was also extended ITV News coverage – to watch the clip follow this link and skip to 1 minute 45 seconds. 

In October 2018, this work was featured in a video on the BBC Plastics Watch website which you can see here.


In 2018 and 2019 the Woodspring Trust have kindly supported this programme.