A Deep Dive into the Waste Problem in the Galapagos


GSSE students Justin and Senna conducted field work in the Galapagos.

10/3/16 – This blog post was written by students in the GSSE MBA who conducted field work in the Galapagos in regards to overconsumption, waste management, and environmental conservation.

The Galápagos Islands have been globally recognized for their high levels of biodiversity and endemism (species found nowhere else on earth). Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection was famously inspired here and in 2001 the islands were declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.  This fame has led to an explosion of tourism industry growth over the past 50 years.  In the late 1960s, the islands received approximately 2,000 visitors per year.  As of 2007, this number had increased to more than 160,000 per year. The economic benefits of the tourism industry have also led to a boom in resident population growth from 4,000 in 1970 to over 25,000 today.

In response to the negative effects of the increasing human footprint in the Galápagos, UNESCO added the archipelago to the list of “At Risk” World Heritage Sites in 2007. In the same year, the President of Ecuador issued an Emergency Decree declaring the conservation and environmental management of the Galápagos ecosystem a national priority.  Among the many challenges the islands face are the upward-shifting trends in consumption patterns and per capita waste generation from both residents and tourists.  Simply put, creating “green” waste management practices on a chain of small volcanic islands 600 miles from the mainland is not an easy task.


Senna touring a cardboard recycling facility in the Galapagos.

To fully dive into exploring this problem, we partnered with Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI), a US-based NGO with a small campus in Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island.  Isabela is the largest of the Galápagos islands but has one of the smallest populations (~2,500), with most of the island being reserved for the Galápagos National Park.  Past research and development projects conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and Toyota provided the foundation for our research and we were very fortunate to receive guidance and onsite waste management tours from key WWF and local municipality resources in the Galápagos.

The European Union, AECID, WWF, Toyota, and other organizations have all made substantial investments and efforts to address the waste management crisis in the Galápagos.  However, a great deal of work remains to be done.  Facilities, equipment, and processes have all been designed and built, but ongoing maintenance and supply chain constraints often bring progress to a halt.  For instance, during our stay and for the past six months prior, although residents are actively separating their waste into organic, recyclable, and non-organic color-coded containers, both recyclables and non-organic waste is currently being dumped into a single unsealed landfill (which is on fire) since the only compacting machine they have is not functioning. The garbage trucks have bald tires, cracked windshields, broken speedometers, and no spare parts for their extensive bumpy city routes with an eight mile trek up into the highlands where the waste facilities are located.


The burning landfill in the Galapagos.

In addition to the interviews with WWF, Galápagos National Park, and the local municipality employees, we were able to meet with many local business owners to learn more about the challenges they face.  We rode along in the recycling truck for a full day’s run, logging GPS route data throughout the trip for cost and operational efficiency analysis.  After learning about the waste management situation on Isabela we were also shown around the recycling center on Santa Cruz in Puerto Ayora, which services a much larger population.


Evidence of the substantial waste problem in the Galapagos.

In addition to the maintenance and operational challenges, geographic and supply chain issues create strong barriers to green waste management.  On paper, all of the recyclable material should be separated, compacted, and transported to the docks for transport to be sold in the mainland Ecuadorian cities of Guayaqil and Quito.  However, the distance from the recycling facilities to the docks creates substantial overhead, and there is no port on the island, so all cargo must be carried out on one small water taxi at a time to the cargo ships which only arrive once every two weeks.  Additional human economic factors further reduce the revenue generated from these efforts, making a sustainable financial model all the more challenging.

Now that we understand the problem better, we are looking for solutions which will empower onsite waste processing of up-cyclable materials in island environments which have geographically deadlocked waste streams such as Isabela.  Our research has shown that PET plastic bottles offer the highest potential value and are fueled by a constant source of tourist water bottles and local disposable containers.  As we continue our efforts we plan to use the well-understood Isabela island environment as an initial pilot case for a much larger impact solution.

This entry was posted in Global Orientation, Stories from the Field, Sustainable Enterprise and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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