The Galápagos Islands are some of the most isolated and delicate spots on the planet — brimming with marine life and exotic animals found nowhere else, and separated from the nearest land mass by 600 miles of deep ocean.
And yet the archipelago, which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, is fighting against a new invasive species: the world’s garbage.
“We’ve been noticing more and more plastic washing up onto the islands and there’s a logical explanation for it,” said Walter Bustos, who recently stepped down as the head of the Galápagos National Park. “The same currents that brought life, biodiversity and endemic [species] to the Galápagos are now bringing us plastic.”
Soda bottles, shopping bags, combs, televisions, batteries, buttons. All are being swept across the Pacific from as far away as Indonesia, China and Peru to wash up on the islands.
But to find global garbage in one of the world’s premier — and jealously guarded — marine reserves is jarring.
Mariana Vera-Zambrano, the Galápagos project manager with Conservation International, has been working on an initiative with Ecuador’s Environment Ministry and the Coca-Cola Foundation to clean some of the islands’ most remote beaches.
“These are places where ... there is no population, there is no fishing, there is no tourism, there’s nothing,” she said. And yet, there is tons of trash.
Last year, workers traveled to a strip of beach near Cerro Ballena on the eastern coast of Isabela Island. It’s a swath of land virtually untouched by man and that, because of vicious tides, is only accessible a few months out of the year.
And even though the same area had been cleaned several months earlier, 2.2 tons of garbage were collected, including 8,000 plastic bottles, she said.
Of those bottles, researchers were able to identify the origin for about 3,500 of them. What they found is that 40 percent came from China, 38 percent from Peru (where the Humboldt Current creates an oceanic freeway for debris) and the rest from as far away as Japan, Panama, Turkey, Mexico and England.
Less than 1 percent of the garbage at the collection sites was thought to come from the islands’ permanent population of 27,000 people — or from the 230,000 tourists who visit the park every year, Vera said.
Others caution, however, that while the exercise identified where the plastic was manufactured — it didn't necessarily establish where the trash made its way into the ocean.
The Galápagos Islands lie due west of mainland Ecuador at the confluence of three ocean currents that the United Nations says makes it a “melting pot for marine species.” It’s home to scores of animals found nowhere else on earth, including iguanas, tortoises, penguins and Galápagos Sea Lions. When Darwin visited in 1835, the subtle differences he noticed between finches living on different islands inspired his theories on natural selection and evolution.
While park authorities are keeping a lid on tourism, fighting off invasive species and chasing away illegal fishing vessels, staving off the flow of garbage is a tougher battle.
Bustos said they've found Darwin Finches building their nests with plastic filament and have had to untangle sea turtles from plastic bags.
But the problems could be worse.
“If you look at other archipelagos, like Midway [in the North Pacific], they’re finding dead birds with their stomachs full of plastic bottle caps and cigarette lighters,” he said. “In the Galápagos, fortunately, we haven’t had those problems yet, but that’s why we have to keep the beaches clean.”
The global plastic glut is driving its own evolution. There are organizations using boats to fish for trash, there are plans to create floating buoys to suck up garbage, and scientists are working on enzymes that eat plastic.
Bustos has been meeting with other conservationists, including renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who are discussing ideas to make plastic traceable back to the companies that manufacture and use it. It’s those businesses, he argues, that are the true “owners” of the bottles, bags and containers that litter the beach.
“The owners should be the ones who are paying for cleanup. The owners of that plastic should be held environmentally responsible,” he said. “The next big leap [in conservation] would be to be able to send the plastic back to its rightful owner.”
*This article has been updated for the original