Garbage gets a second life in the Galapagos

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SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — Six days a week, a small army of garbage trucks fans out across the island of Santa Cruz, collecting the rotting food, empty beer and soda cans, and dirty diapers tossed away by the 20,000 people who live on the island and the 4,000 weekly visitors from around the world.

Most of the garbage is hauled to Relleno Sanitario, or Sanitary Landfill, about 15 miles north of Puerto Ayora, the main town on the island.

But nearly 40 percent of the island’s annual 5,105 tons of garbage is getting a second go-round, government officials say. Rather than piling up at the landfill, it is being recycled.

“Some materials could be reused directly after recycling,” Marcos Carrillo, the coordinator of the Fabricio Valverde Recycling Center, said in Spanish. “For example, the dried organic garbage is sold to farmers.”

Many of the trinkets tourists buy as souvenirs started out as someone else’s garbage: paper is recycled into jewelry and chunks of wood are carved into figurines.

In 1959, the government of Ecuador designated almost all the land in the Galapagos as a national park. In 1978, the United Nations recognized the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site. Both steps introduced protections for the animals, plants, land and seas of the Galapagos.

In 2003, as the number of people living in the Galapagos and the number of tourists rose, the government of Ecuador adopted comprehensive legislation that dealt with pollution, the handling of garbage and other forms of potential environmental damage that might be caused by people.

Three years later, the government imposed recycling of garbage on everyone in the Galapagos, its hotels, restaurants and other businesses. It required people to separate their garbage into several categories:

  • Organics: Fruit peels, vegetables and cut-up wood;
  • Recyclables: Paper, cardboard, plastic, cans and batteries;
  • Non-recyclables: Toilet paper, old clothes, diapers, razors and water filters.

But change comes slowly in the Galapagos, and it wasn’t until 2015 that the government set out different colored garbage bins in prominent places around the country like the airports and around the main towns, making its ambitions for recycling visible to everyone. At the main airport on Baltra, for example, visitors leaving to board buses headed for Puerto Ayora are asked to toss their trash into the appropriate bin: Blue for recyclables; black for non-recyclables and green for organic.

In March 2016, alone, the government said in its most recent report, nearly 140 tons of recyclable garbage was sorted and taken to the Fabricio Valverde Recycling Center, just outside Puerto Ayora.

The Galapagos Disassembly Line

At the center, a handful of men wearing protective masks and gloves sort garbage dumped on a conveyor belt into piles: paper, plastics, glass bottles. They remove caps to make it easier for machines further down the assembly line to crush plastic bottles.

They separate glass according to color – clear, brown or green – and grind it into a powder. Later the ground glass gets mixed into cement to make paving stones.

Workers sorting through green bins pull out pieces of wood, and then spray the compost that’s left with a disinfectant that will be sold to farmers for $5 per $100 pounds, Carrillo said.

While some of the larger recyclable items, like corrugated cardboard, are put on a ship for the five-day journey back to mainland Ecuador for processing, many of the smaller items are put back to use immediately by shopkeepers and artisans.

For example, pages of magazines are folded and glued to make small bags for tourists to carry souvenirs. Those discarded pieces of wood are carved into miniature sea turtles and sea lions.

Daysi Patiño has a souvenir booth just at the exit of the town’s main dock where tourists arrive from other islands on powerboats, yachts and cruise ships.

“All the handicrafts are made by myself using the recyclable materials,” said Patiño, standing behind a table display with earrings and necklaces the color of the turquoise waters in front of her. “The small wallets are made out of the cardboard, the jewelry is made out of the paper, the glasses are made out of beer bottles, and the wooden turtles and sea lions are made out of wood.”

A souvenir booth sells small wallets handcrafted out of recycled cardboard.

A souvenir booth sells small wallets handcrafted out of recycled cardboard.

In order for the recycling efforts to work, the community has to be behind it, said Mario Piu, a biologist and the director of the Environmental Management Department of Puerto Ayora.

“We are promoting the ‘4R’ principles — recycle, reduction, reuse and rejection — in the Galapagos,” Piu said in Spanish. “The biggest challenge for us is not the process of recycling, it’s how to change people’s minds in order to respect the environment and consume responsibly.”

A major incentive to get residents and business owners to comply, Piu said, is imposing fines.

It’s up to the people on the island to sort their garbage and put the correct bin outside by 7 a.m. on the right days: Monday, Wednesday and Friday for recyclables and organics; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for non-recyclables.

If they violate the rules, Piu said, the penalty is $20 for a first infraction, $50 for a second and $100 for a third. That is a hefty bite out of a family’s household income, when the average salary is less than  $1,800 a month.

Maritza Muñoz, the manager of the Hotel Castro in Puerto Ayora, knows the garbage schedule by heart. “It’s been the ritual in town for years,” Muñoz said in Spanish.

The Hotel Castro, which has been in business for 20 years, keeps its color-coded bins in a back room. The cleaning staff dumps the garbage from guest rooms in small white bins. The hotel refills plastic bottles of shampoo rather than tossing and buying new ones.

Some tourists are enthusiastic about recycling in the Galapagos.

Virginia residents Sherry and John Brubaker were on vacation in the Galapagos for 10 days celebrating his retirement as a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “I think three garbage bins is a great initiative for recycling and the government does a lot for the environment,” Sherry Brubaker said. But she was dismayed to see tourists and even locals tossing cigarettes on the floor and leaving plastic bottles around.

“I think people in Galapagos need to be more protective of the environment and pay more attention to the details,” she said.

Piu agrees, but thinks the answer lays with educating the youngest generation. His agency has developed a cartoon character called Recycle Man, the super hero of recycling.

In one comic book given to schoolchildren, Recycle Man teaches that it takes 600 years for a plastic bottle to decompose. The students are off an adventure, learning to turn a plastic bottle into a pot to plant a seedling.

Said Piu: “Everyone in the island has the responsibility to recycle, but we still need more funding and other support to promote the recycling.”

More like this: Galapagos 2016

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