Galapagos: Doing Great Combatting Trash and Pollution… but Could Do Better

In July 2016 my daughter Zoe and I traveled to Ecuador and in particular Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal Islands in the Galapagos. We loved the 2 weeks we spent in this island paradise, swimming with sea lions and hiking among disaffected birds, iguanas, tortoises and other animals, with the ever-present turquoise sea as a back drop.

We were impressed that on the 3 islands we visited, there was intensive trash recycling, and much less trash on the ground and in the streets than in Quito. However, we also saw room for improvement: the ports evidenced a plethora of flotsam, and there’s still energy waste, air pollution and a dusting of litter in towns. I was also personally dissatisfied with the sewage system.

Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal all have active recycling programs in which locals, hotels and tourists all appear to embrace and participate actively. Trash is separated into landfill, recycling, and compostable organics. This leads to a great reduction in the landfill trash, and recoups compost for the delicate ecosystem.

Despite this, there seems to be a casual acceptance of leaving litter behind. We observed this in the form of trash left in public areas, and in the scattering of commercial detritus that finds its way into the water and collects in the port areas, especially in Puerto Ayora.

I don’t know if Ecuador generally, or the Galapagos Islands specifically, have anti-littering education campaigns in schools. But that seems a prudent and enduring way to change cultural attitudes and acceptance of littering. And it’s proven to work in the United States and other countries.

Other places we observed room for improvement were in air quality and the treatment of sewage.

The air pollution was much better than in Quito, and we found it a great pleasure to discover the delicious and healthy sea air of the islands. However, considering there’s a constant sea breeze and relatively very little traffic, there is a fair amount of air pollution. I found myself wondering: How can such a small population with so few vehicles produce this poor air quality? Over and over we noticed vehicles idling unnecessarily and finally concluded that this was the primary cause.

It reminded me of my youth in the States, when my mom and pop would leave the car idling while conversing with a neighbor, or even when leaving the car for a quick errand. Again, this requires a cultural shift to where it’s not cool to be casual about the environment. Maybe stricter emissions controls would also help.

There’s also a thriving taxi culture and not much public transportation. We saw some bike rentals but not great bike paths to ride them on. Those are 2 areas for possible improvement.

Isabella is pretty good for cycling but Santa Cruz would benefit from nice bike paths to Santa Rosa, Los Gemelos, Tortuga Bay and around the salt mines to Las Grietas. And the great hiking trails on San Cristobal could be expanded to bike paths, as could the hike out to La Loberia.

We found some buses on Santa Cruz, but wouldn’t it be great if there were an active public trolley bus system that both locals and tourists could use? It would reduce the number of taxis and would employ bus drivers and conductors. Maybe they could even use low emission Liquid Natural Gas.

Finally I want to address Ecuador’s dirty little secret: all the hotel rooms are a little stinky. Ecuador is the only country I’ve been to where the standard bathroom practice is to dispose of used toilet paper in a small trash can in the bathroom. The resultant smell is something that locals seem to have gotten used to. But since no one else is accustomed to this, if Ecuador wants to embrace tourism, it will have to figure out a less smelly system.

Change is difficult and expensive, but maybe the Galapagos Islands can lead the way. By changing building codes now, the government can encourage future decades of improved living conditions for tourists from all over.

This is my first visit to the Galapagos. I know places change and grow over time, and tend to become more developed. I am happy and proud to have been able to have experience this exquisite retreat at its current moment. But I also look forward to visiting the Galapagos in the future and seeing firsthand what smart growth and intentionality can bring about.

Charlotte has traveled to over 50 countries including Bhutan and Mali. She is interested in understanding world cultures by visiting and exploring them. At her home in Washington DC she renovates houses, runs a support group for divorcing moms, raises 9 chickens for eggs, and lives with her daughter and travel partner Zoe and their cat Nico.

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