Plastic Pollution: A "Clear and Present Danger" to the Galapagos Islands
People of my generation remember well the 1967 coming of age film, “The Graduate.” In the opening scene, a confused, wide-eyed young man, just returning home after finishing his university studies, is offered advice about his future by a middle-aged friend of his parents in a much-quoted exchange:
MR. MCGUIRE: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
BENJAMIN: Yes, sir.
MR. MCGUIRE: Are you listening?
BENJAMIN: Yes, I am.
MR. MGGUIRE: Plastics.
As preadolescent in those years, I was precociously intrigued by the plot of the movie and captivated by the wonderful soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel, but completely oblivious to its 1960s counterculture message. Years later, I found out that the reference to “plastics” in the film was considered as analogous with the perceived “unnatural”, “artificial”, and “lifeless” materialism of the times.
Plastics have also been broadly appreciated economically for being low-cost, lightweight, strong, durable, resistant to corrosion, and nonconductors of electricity. It has been estimated that global plastics production rose exponentially since the 1950s, from 15 million tons in 1964 to over 311 million tons in 2014, or twenty-fold in 50 years.
Moving the clock forward to the end of the second decade of the XXI Century, mass consumption, so greatly facilitated by plastics, is now widely understood and accepted as a direct threat to future life in our planet. While the great versatility and usefulness of plastics is economically appealing, their broad use and fate can also harm. Indeed, the manufacture, wide use, and waste of all things plastic, particularly their prominence in marine debris, is comparable to climate change in terms of impact, breadth and complexity.
On a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, I was struck to learn that despite being located 600 miles westward of the South American continent and the dedicated work of Galapagos National Park’s rangers and volunteers to conduct coastal clean ups regularly, plastic waste being carried by strong oceanic currents is putting its fragile ecosystem at risk. Indeed, information from different international organizations such as the National Geographic Society shows that a plethora of plastic bottles, oil containers, plastic takeaway containers, plastic cutlery, glass bottles, metal tanks, fishing nets and traps, and plastic-fiber rope are washing onshore into pristine lava fields, sandy beaches, and mangrove fields. As observed by the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the increase of visitors to the Islands in recent years, as well as the increase in the permanent residents, also implies that the amount of waste created is growing, adding to plastic pollution.
It should be clear to all of us, therefore, that in spite of their “splendid isolation”, man-made waste and pollution are becoming a major risk that threatens the Galapagos Islands’ unique fauna and flora, both inland and in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In particular, the native wildlife of Galapagos, that includes animal species not found anywhere else in the world, are highly vulnerable to the introduction of plastic pollution as it may cause adverse changes to natural habitats and injury and death when animals get entangled in heaps of debris. Iconic creatures such as the giant land tortoise and marine turtles are particularly affected when debris in the ocean is mistaken for food and ingested, causing internal abrasions and gut blockages. The human population is also at health risk as the unintended ingestion of plastic substances disrupts endocrine functions*, which can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.
We also have to understand that this environmental risk to the preservation of the Galapagos Islands is part of a growing interconnected problem across continental South America and the rest of the world. Indeed, World Bank Group assessments have documented the magnitude of this challenge globally. In 2010 alone, 4-12 million tons of plastic were estimated to wash ashore globally. Of the estimated 275 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2010, over 60 percent is thought to have originated from plastic packaging, which is primarily designed for single use.
Effective action to minimize this risk will require robust advocacy grounded in scientific evidence to mobilize high-level political support to counter “commercial determinants” of environmental and public health risks and active engagement of government entities, private enterprises, and the population as a whole; medium-and long term policies and regulatory mechanisms such as the sustainability certification standards; raising consumer and farmer awareness of and ability to address the challenges of plastics use, as well as nudging the immense market power of consumers to shape and influence farming practices; and predictable and sufficient funding levels to support sustained action over the medium-and long term.
As noted by the World Bank, much is known about the major avenues for mitigating plastics pollution-- from improving how plastics are managed once they enter the waste stream or even further upstream during their useful life, to reducing how much is produced, used, or enters the waste stream. Promising approaches to deal with this problem include:
- Recycling to reduce the production of new plastic and how much enters the waste stream. Plastics have been recycled for decades, and recycling is now accepted as a good practice globally.
- Waste-to-energy: This involves turning plastics into fuel or directly into energy (through gasification using pyrolysis and incineration, respectively). As with recycling, however, its effectiveness can be limited by collection challenges upstream.
- Materials innovation/biodegradable plastics: Certain plastics can be made biodegradable, thus lessening the likelihood that they will persist for a very long term in their plastic state, as they have the potential to be composted or to photodegrade (or to otherwise degrade).
- Improved collection and waste management: Expanding collection, improving waste transport systems to reduce illegal dumping, and closing or upgrading dumping sites located near waterways can prevent leakage of plastics into the environment. When plastic waste is not collected, it is more than twice as likely to leak into the ocean.
Similarly, as the global experience with “public health taxes” levied on cigarettes, alcohol, and sugary drinks shows, imposition of or hiking the level of taxes to raise the price of single-use plastic bags to carry groceries or other items, needs to be adopted as a win-win policy measure to discourage the use of thin, disposable plastic shopping bags to help the environment and reduce plastic trash, while helping mobilize additional domestic resources to fund environmental protection in national budgets. This measure is of upmost importance in periods of economic austerity as currently facing the Ecuadorian Government and should be included and supported as part of fiscal consolidation efforts.
To help address this issue globally, innovative financing mechanisms are being tapped. For example, the World Bank launched in April 2019 a Sustainable Development Bond targeting institutional and individual investors to draw attention to the challenge of plastic waste pollution in oceans. This bond, which raised US$10 million, would contribute to fund projects to support the sustainable use of ocean and marine resources, including through better waste management, in developing countries.
The growing economic, environmental, human health, and aesthetic risk posed to the Galapagos Islands by marine plastic debris from continental Ecuador and neighboring countries can be contained and minimized by collective action. If this is not done, plastic waste stands to cause irreparable damage to the Galapagos Islands in an ominous way similar to Charles Darwin’s observation in The Voyage of the Beagle with regard to the “havoc” that may be caused by the “introduction of any new beast of pray…before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power”.
Note*: The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things. This system affects almost every organ and cell in the body, according to the Merck Manual.