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Plastic litter in the Galapagos


Plastic in the Galapagos – Science to Solutions

Over 25 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. Yet many do not realise how catastrophic this environmental disaster is. Those that do are taking to the frontline to halt the plastic polluted tide. One person who has dedicated her life to this cause is Tamara Galloway OBE – and her team at Pacific Plastics: Science to Solutions (PPSS), who have recently been awarded a £3.5 million grant from the British Government to research plastic pollution in the Galapagos.

May 2022
Charlie Savage

The invention of synthetic plastic in the 19th century was driven by the endangerment of animals such as elephants whose tusks were in high demand for piano keys and hair combs. Plastic revolutionised medicine and the way we live today. However, plastic went from scientific development to environmental catastrophe in just 100 years.  As a result over 25 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. This means that for every square mile of ocean there are now up to 45,000 individual pieces of plastic. Larger plastic pieces break down in to microplastics which are then consumed by marine species who mistake them for prey.

The world’s oceans are filled with life and biodiversity – and there is nowhere more representative of this than the origin of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the Galapagos Archipelago. However, plastic pollution knows no boundaries and the Galapagos is no exception. Here at the Pelorus Foundation we are committed to protecting our oceans and believe that projects such as PPSS are essential in tackling ocean plastic pollution.

PPSS is a global network of world class scientists working to free the Eastern Pacific Ocean from plastic. They draw on science and citizen participation to understand the sources of plastic pollution and design and promote viable solutions for communities and industries – to build towards the development of a sustainable, circular plastics resource flow.

Could you give me a brief introduction to the project and the team you’re working with at PPSS?

My name is Tamara Galloway and I’m a Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter. My research involves studying the environmental impact of pollution. We study all sorts of different things, but we have a focus on marine pollution. The project that I am going to talk to you about is a project that has been funded quite recently by the UK Government. So, I’m the principal investigator and I have a whole team of other scientists. We all work together. The title of the project is ‘Reducing plastic in the Galapagos Islands and the eastern Pacific Ocean’. The idea is that we bring a whole load of different disciplines and people together to try and tackle this important problem.

Could you please give a brief history of the research field and how you came to work on this project?

Well, the reason that we started studying marine plastics in the first place was that we had never found a sample from any of the world’s oceans where we didn’t find tiny pieces of plastic in the water. Because we study pollution, what we used to do is filter out the plastic and look for the other pollutants and then over the course of the years we realised that actually, maybe the plastics were the pollutants. So we had to start working out methods to be able to extract them from water and from wildlife – and work out what they were and where they were coming from. That’s how the field evolved.

Our work in the Galapagos Islands sprung about five or six years ago from an approach made to us by the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT),a UK based charity that works in the Galapagos. They had been approached by the park rangers who were really concerned about the amount of plastic litter that they were finding in the Galapagos Islands.

Now, Galapagos, it’s the centre of world ecotourism really, isn’t it? It’s where everybody wants to go. It’s thousands of miles from the nearest shoreline. It’s the iconic home of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. It’s pristine, it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. You don’t really want to know that there is a huge problem with plastic litter.

So, for the first couple of years, there wasn’t very much publicity for what we were doing, but we went over there and started working with the Galapagos Conservation Trust, Park Rangers, other scientists, environmental modelers, environmental toxicologists and marine biologists.

“Now, Galapagos, it’s the centre of world ecotourism really, isn’t it? It’s where everybody wants to go. It’s thousands of miles from the nearest shoreline. It’s the iconic home of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. It’s pristine, it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. You don’t really want to know that there is a huge problem with plastic litter.”

Tamara Galloway OBE

Where is the plastic coming from?

 We had a series of workshops where we tried to scope out what was going on and we realised that a lot of the litter is coming from the mainland. Although the mainland is thousands of miles away, all of the particular currents in that area, like the Humboldt current, are pulling that litter away and then trapping it around the shorelines of the Galapagos. We also realised that a lot is coming from fishing fleets.

Now the Galapagos is in an area of massive upwelling, that’s the reason why they have so much dramatic and fantastic marine life there in the first place. It’s because all the upwelling currents lead to a lot of organic matter, migratory species come there and there are feeding grounds and breeding grounds.

Of course, if you get lots of marine life, you get lots of human fishing fleets, following them around. The Galapagos is protected by a 40-mile no fish zone all the way around the shorelines. But what happens is all the other factory fishing fleets, particularly from the far east, sit just outside that 40-mile zone with their massive boats, and they scoop all the aquatic life out of the ocean. But they also produce a lot of litter. They tend to throw a lot of fishing gear overboard and there’s a lot of plastic bottles, food packaging and other things that land on the shoreline as well.

“There was a big initiative by the UK Government to try and tackle waste in other countries. Recognising that plastic is one of those pollutants that knows no boundaries, it moves dramatically around the planet, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. It can get everywhere.”


Tamara Galloway OBE

How did you get funding for the research?

There was a big initiative by the UK Government to try and tackle waste in other countries. Recognising that plastic is one of those pollutants that knows no boundaries, it moves dramatically around the planet, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. It can get everywhere.

We pulled together this big consortium of project partners, including life cycle analysts in Chile and marine biologists in Peru, circular economy specialists and marine mammal specialists. We got £3.5 million from the government to set this project up, and importantly, not just to document what is there but to try and work towards a solution.

How far through the project are you currently?

We are one year in and we have three years to go. So, we are just starting to pull everything together and just starting to set up all our initiatives. The project is divided into 3 parts.

Firstly, we’re tracking all the flows. Where does all the plastic come from and where does it go? 

Secondly, we’re studying the impacts. So, what are the impacts on the fisheries? What are the impacts on mangroves? What are the impacts on human health and wellbeing?

In the third part of the project, we’re looking at interventions. So, what do we do about it? And we have a lot of local people that we’re working with as well as waste management companies and lots of artisanal companies who try and make things out of marine litter. We’re working with the shopping malls in South America who have a huge amount of power in terms of upselling single use plastic items and instead switching to deposit schemes or to reusable containers. I think already the initiatives in the shopping mall have stopped something like 5.3 million plastic items being released from one shopping mall alone.

Have you got any preliminary hypotheses or findings yet?

Yeah, we’re starting to gather data. I mean, it has been delayed because of the COVID pandemic, but some local groups, particularly around Guayaquil (Ecuador), have been gathering data on litter down some of the rivers. We know that in some of the big cities in in South America, the waste management facilities aren’t necessarily able to cope with all the single use plastics that are being pushed into the local economy and so a lot of plastic litter comes down the rivers and they’ve been doing monitoring there.

We’ve been working with a fantastic company who’ve designed and prototyped some special equipment that is able to collect the plastic from rivers. It’s almost like a pump system. You can go across the mouth of a river, and it will collect up and sample some of the plastic that’s coming down the river so that you can get an idea of what’s there. They’re prototyping whether they can actually collect that plastic, and if it can enter the recycling stream. At the moment it’s collecting for analysis because it’s beyond the scope of any one company to actually collect everything. But it’s enabling us to work out what’s coming, how fast it is coming and how that’s related to local conditions. For example, is there more plastic in heavier rainfall seasons?

What sort of interventions do you believe are important to tackle this problem?

There’s no single solution for plastic waste. Obviously beach cleans have a hugely important role to play. But it’s a bit like a bathtub. If your bath is leaking, you can put towels around the side to stop the flow, but unless you switch the tap off, it’s going to keep leaking. It’s the same with plastic waste. We can pick it up where we find it, then we can institute beach cleans but unless we tackle the source and change the way that we’re using plastic, we’re not going to solve the problem.

We also have partners in the tourism industry. Obviously, the Galapagos is a big ecological destination and we’re working with them to try and make sure that the tourism in the location is as sustainable and undamaging as it possibly can be.

Have you got any findings on the impact of this plastic pollution on marine animals?

So, one of our excellent PhD students, who now works at the Galapagos Conservation Trust, just published a very early paper showing that microplastics [those tiny little bits of plastic that are smaller than about 5 millimetres] are a particular concern because they’re small enough to overlap with the prey of so many marine animals. She’s been studying where they might be entering the food chain and has shown that in fact a whole range of different marine invertebrate species are ingesting microplastic as part of their diet in the Galapagos Islands, and that includes edible species such as sea cucumbers.

We’ve also conducted some risk analysis of some of the larger marine animals that are part of the red lists, so they’re listed as being at risk or of concern at being at risk. We’ve been identifying which of those might be more or less at risk because of their eating habits and their migratory patterns and whether their migratory patterns are leading them past some of the areas where most of the plastic is. This work is ongoing, but we’re starting to get some results already.

What sort of partners are you working with on this project?

There’s a company that specialises in making new plastics out of waste materials. So, the idea behind your typical plastic bottle is it’s made from petroleum products way off in another country, and it’s the waste products of the petroleum industry that then go on to make these plastics that are then used widely and then thrown away. What if instead of doing that, you looked at what was available in the local area? You could make biodegradable plastics out of waste materials like bamboo or coffee grinds or the tops of pineapples or whatever happens to be the organic waste in your particular area. You could make plastics there, and if you made them biodegradable then they could be used locally and they could go back into the carbon cycle locally and you could change this whole linear system of producing things and throwing them into the environment. You could circularise it.

We work with another company called Fundación Circular and they specialise in looking for circular economy approaches. They’re doing a lot of the work with the waste management companies on tracking how waste is tackled in the area, and they’ve also been doing a lot of the really interesting work in shopping malls.

You know, it’s almost like citizen science work, it’s working with local people to work out where and how can you change people’s behaviour so that plastic bottles are not your desired object. There’s been a lot of changes in the area already and single use plastic bags aren’t used and there are deposit return schemes for plastic bottles.

When you go to an island like Galapagos it is very easy to track plastic entering and exiting the system because everything is brought in and everything goes out on the same boats and planes. So, in terms of working out what’s there and doing something about it it’s almost like a closed system. So, it’s a really good model to study.

Could you sum up the importance of the work you are doing in a couple of sentences?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that the greatest mark of madness is in doing the same thing again and again, expecting something different to happen. If we want something different to happen, we have to behave differently. So why don’t we just stop chucking stuff into the sea and we’ll cure the problem of marine plastic. Something along those lines anyway.


Image Credits: CI and GCT

In collaboration with PPSS