Plastic pollution and over-tourism: It’s not (totally) your fault

Sea lion

Sea lion in the Galápagos (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Will your dream vacation destroy the very places you flew thousands of miles to experience?

According to a recent article in Vox, tourism in “last-chance” places — destinations that will be drastically affected by climate change over the next century, such as the Florida Keys or Bali — is rising, and contributing to local environmental problems, not least of them plastic pollution.

But when it comes to the relationship between over-tourism and plastic pollution, the headlines don’t paint the full picture, an expert at Conservation International says. While it’s easy to pin these issues on over-tourism alone — more humans equals more trash left behind — the reality is much less black-and-white.

In the Galápagos Islands, beaches are littered with plastic bottles that can trap and kill young marine iguanas and crabs. Plastic bags float throughout the ocean, filling the stomachs of whales and tricking them into feeling full while they slowly starve to death.

But this isn’t the result of your one-week vacation. This is the result of a deep-rooted global problem: How we use things — and how we get rid of them when we’re done.

Tourism in the Galápagos Islands has been on an uptick for the past decade. In 2007, 161,859 people visited the islands; in 2018, that number had jumped to 275,000.

It would be easy to assume this rapid growth in tourism is responsible for the plastics littering the islands’ beaches. But in reality, much of the trash washing ashore comes from much farther away.

“Vast amounts of plastic garbage and litter washes up on the Galápagos Islands’ beaches,” Mariana Vera, Galápagos program manager of Conservation International Ecuador, said. “While some of it is a result of the increase in tourism, the vast majority of it is not. Currents push garbage and plastics from South and central America, and the United States onto the islands and coastlines.”

“The solution to the plastics problem,” she said, “isn’t to exclude tourists from visiting. It’s to reduce and redesign global consumption.”

That’s a tall order, especially for China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, which together contribute more to ocean plastic pollution than the rest of the world combined. Garbage with Chinese branding, such as plastic bottles, is regularly found on the Galápagos Islands, and experts blame much of it on fishing boats from China and other Asian countries.

Plastic pollution isn’t just an eyesore: It threatens the survival of the endemic species that inspired the modern theory of evolution.

“I came to the Galápagos 17 years ago and immediately realized what a special place it is,” Vera said. “The interactions I saw between humans and animals were astounding — picture sea lions standing next to fish vendors waiting for a handout, completely unafraid. Or Galápagos frigatebirds swooping above people’s heads in the market.” Protecting the ecosystems that make this coexistence possible is a primary function of Conservation International’s work in the area, she continued.

Part of that work includes the Coastal Cleanup initiative, a joint venture between Conservation International Ecuador, the Ministry of Environment, the Galápagos National Park and the Coca-Cola Foundation. This initiative has been tackling plastic pollution within the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador for three years.

It has been massively successful so far, resulting in the removal of 7.6 tons of garbage and 39,105 plastic bottles in 2019 alone. Organization leaders and volunteers comb beaches, mangroves and underwater sites to remove plastics and other waste from the Galápagos and seven other marine and coastal protected areas in mainland Ecuador. The project also aims to tackle how people think about, use and dispose of plastics at the local level. Education activities and communications around the issue aim to raise awareness and change behaviors when it comes to not recycling or disposing of waste properly.


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“The goal of this project is to relieve shorelines of plastic pollution and litter,” said Vera, “so we’re taking care of the plastics that have already made their way to our shores, regardless of how many miles they traveled to get there.” But even if we cut off tourism to the Galápagos today, there would still be trash ending up on our beach.”

That doesn’t mean tourists are off the hook: Reducing your footprint is essential to protecting the places so many of us still want to visit. From offsetting the carbon generated by your air travel to eating sustainably at local restaurants to bringing your own stainless-steel straw, you have an impact. But addressing the global problem of plastic pollution goes beyond tourism.

What we need, Vera said, is a new approach to consumption — and new policies to get us there.

An option suggested by Aulani Wilhelm, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, is adding another “r” to the reduce, reuse, recycle phrase — specifically, redesign. Vera agreed.

“All steps of plastic consumption, from factory to consumer, should be redesigned to reduce the need for single-use plastics and increase the recyclability of plastics as a whole,” Vera said. “It is only by addressing the root of the plastics problem that we will be able to restore beaches and marine life to a similar state which Darwin witnessed almost 200 years ago.”

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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  1. Shane Leyland says

    This article was incredibly disheartening to me but also very informative and encouraging. I hope that more people become educated about this epidemic and take the necessary steps to correct the problems we’ve caused and are causing!

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  3. Dana says

    I’m glad that CI is writing about the issues of the impacts of tourism on areas of the world that hold great natural treasures. These kinds of areas, such as the Galapagos, and I would add large parts of Patagonia, draw large numbers of tourists. I appreciate the perspective on plastics pollution, and the choice to focus on the larger problem of the need to reduce plastics creation and disposal, however, I think the article misses other negative impacts of tourism, especially to remote and/or underdeveloped areas.

    Take the impacts of plane travel, for example. I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I recent trip to El Calafate in Argentinian Patagonia, highlighted the obvious increase in tourists arriving by airplane and traveling long distances in buses to arrive at remote locations. The carbon footprint cannot be denied when this type of travel increases. I think we, as well-healed tourists, need to really connect with the negative impacts we may have on our destinations, and how our travel in general increases the output of green house gases. I include myself in this analysis as well. The impact on local ecosystems should also not be minimized. In Argentina, my group spent several days in a small town, El Chalten, founded officially in 1985 as a base for mountain exploration. The town has the feel of a boom town, and its growth is outpacing the infrastructure it needs to maintain a healthy environment. For example, there is no zoning, no sewage treatment (this gets conveniently dumped a bit downstream from the town, so tourists don’t really notice or think about it). There is also no means for tourists to use reusable water bottles, unless they are brave enough to fill up from the tap (which I did because I’ve been living in South America for a while…and one gets cavalier). Unfortunately, the tap water was not treated, so a big mistake on my part.

    I truly love traveling to remote areas, especially those grace with biodiversity and natural beauty. But I believe travelers and tour companies that partake in this kind of tourism should be modeling and supporting sustainability and low impact activities. How can we work to improve in those ways? It’s not only about the plastics!

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