The Galapagos Islands, the living laboratory where English scientist Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection, is making progress in its relentless struggle against a threat from the outside: plastic containers.
Ocean currents carry plastics onto the eastern coasts of these islands, which is a "worrisome" situation, according to Galapagos National Park superintendent Jorge Carrion.
According to the brand names on containers found during the cleaning of beaches in the archipelago, the trash arrives from Peru, Chile, Central America "and (there is) a significant amount of waste with Asian brand labels," Carrion told EFE.
Although authorities do not know exactly how many tons of plastic might currently have accumulated along the islands' shorelines, Carrion recalled that in 2018 they collected 22 tons, while another 4.5 tons were picked just last week.
"We are now classifying the garbage, which is very, very detailed work," he said referring to the recent collection effort.
The municipality of Santa Cruz Island coordinates the transfer of collected waste that is in good condition and can be recycled to the Ecuadorian mainland, while the waste that cannot be recycled due to its being degraded by sunlight and salinity gets delivered to the sanitary landfill there.
In the Galapagos archipelago, located about 1,000 kilometers (roughly 620 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, expanded polyethylene materials and certain plastic bags have been banned since 2015, a prohibition that was later broadened to include plastic straws.
The fight against plastics could be ratcheted up further in March with a total ban on the use of non-returnable plastic containers for beverages.
"The aim is to clean all the coasts of the Galapagos, and in doing that we've come quite a ways in the fight against plastics," said Carrion, insisting that the plastics found on the archipelago's coasts do not come from local production activities.
As president pro tempore of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR), Ecuador works to further dialogue with representatives of other countries to broaden the fight against plastics and it tries to prevent waste of this kind from getting into the ocean.
In Ecuador, work is progressing on devising a general strategy for the fight against plastics in the archipelago, famous for its high biodiversity and for being home to a number of unique species. For this reason, any precautionary measures to preserve the site are important.
Along with the Charles Darwin research station, Ecuador is developing a monitoring program to assess the threat posed by plastic as a potential transporter of species that could endanger native species in the Galapagos, named a World Heritage Site in 1978.
In this way, the presence of non-native species, which can float on plastic waste to the island's shores, can be detected early and action can be taken to reduce the probability of a secondary dispersion.
Experts have identified potential invasive species from Costa Rica and Chile that could reach the Galapagos via the ocean currents.
Thus, a preventative plan has been developed in case invasive species are detected in the area, but authorities are also collecting waste that can reach the archipelago in ships.
The Environment Ministry, working through the National Park and the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, maintains strict monitoring of cargo and tourism vessels because "we have the obligation to ask (ships) to withdraw from the reserve" if contamination from them is found, Carrion said.
As part of its fight against pollution, 35,000 used tires were moved from the Galapagos to mainland Ecuador in 2012, and that process will be repeated as soon as the resolution for the transport of waste from the archipelago can be updated.
Just as in the clean-up along the coasts, Galapagos authorities are also developing communication strategies.
"We need to create environmental awareness among those who reside in the Galapagos and thus, little by little, we're going to be expanding this environmental awareness to mainland Ecuador and the whole world," Carrion said.
The National Park superintendent also said that the Galapagos must be an example not only in conservation issues but as a "form of sustainable living," and the population has responded "well" to the efforts to avoid the use of plastics, an enemy that knows no borders.
By Susana Madera.