Making the Galapagos islands plastic-free again

Crowdfunding for ‘plastic predictor' on Galapagos

Green Turtle (photo: Galapagos Conservation Trust - Jonathan Green)
Green Turtle (photo: Galapagos Conservation Trust - Jonathan Green)

Making the Galapagos islands the first ecosystem that is plastic-free again: that is the goal of a major new project where scientists from Utrecht will join with international ecologists and a genuine ‘garbologist’. Identifying ocean currents is a crucial part of the project, explains oceanographer Erik van Sebille.

Galapagos coast with plastic waste (photo: Galapagos Conservation Trust - Andy Donnelly)n)
(photo: Galapagos Conservation Trust - Andy Donnelly)

“Plastic washes ashore on the Galapagos islands in places with lots of ‘exposure’: high winds and frequent waves. That makes the plastic less visible on the islands: these wild coasts aren’t where iconic species such as the marine iguanas live, or where most of the tourists visit. But that doesn’t make it less of a problem, because the rubbish washed ashore by the waves can be carried back out to sea by the next tide. That’s what we want to prevent”, says oceanographer Erik van Sebille, who is participating in the project together with Steffie Ypma , also from Utrecht University. “The goal isn’t to clean up the beach, it’s to eventually clean up the sea.”

And that starts on the beach. Cleaning up large pieces of plastic on land, such as bottles, plastic bags and fishing gear, is easier than removing the microplastic from the sea, and it has a much bigger effect, Van Sebille explains. “Every time plastic bangs against a rock or grinds across the sand, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. That means if you don’t clean up the macroplastic right away, you’ll end up with thousands of pieces of microplastic. Picking up the rubbish while it’s on land limits the time that the plastic can cause problems at sea.”

Picking up the rubbish while it’s on land limits the time that the plastic can cause problems at sea

portrait picture Erik van Sebille
Erik van Sebille

Weather forecast

In order to clean up the plastic waste on the Galapagos islands efficiently, the researchers from Utrecht are developing a computer tool to predict when and where the plastic will wash ashore. “It’s a bit like a weather forecast for the local park rangers. The Galapagos islands cover a lot of territory. This tool will help them pick which island to choose to prevent the plastic from washing back out to sea.”

To develop this ‘plastic predictor the scientists from Utrecht built software that combines all sorts of wind and water data in an advanced manner. Van Sebille explains that identifying ocean currents plays a crucial role in the tool. A map of ocean currents in the Pacific shows two opposing currents along the equator, both of which move away from the Galapagos. “And yet plastic still washes ashore. But how? And where does it come from?” asks oceanographer Erik van Sebille.

Animals with plastic (photo: Galapagos Conservation Trust - JJuan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez)
(photos: Galapagos Conservation Trust - Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez)


In order to study the currents around the Galapagos islands in more detail, Van Sebille will set out special drifters in the are: small, floating buoys carried along by the ocean current. “Drifters are commonly used in oceanographic research. But since the current carries them away from the Galapagos, we don’t know much about how plastic gets there. We’ll have to put them out in very specific locations. We’re also developing a new type of drifters, because the ones we currently use generally float at a depth of around 15 meters and are intended for different types of research, such as temperature and nutrients in the ocean.


Through a crowdfunding campaign by the Utrecht University Fund, you can sponsor a drifter made specifically to study the transport of plastic on the ocean surface. In so doing, you can contribute to the development of the predictive clean-up tool. The researchers are making the software behind it open-source, and they will also apply it to other areas, such as Spitsbergen, Indonesia and the Wadden Sea.

“We’ll start on the Galapagos. Efficiently cleaning up the plastic that washes ashore there will prevent it from continuing on a long journey through the oceans. The Galapagos may be the best choice for the first plastic-free place in the world. We just have to give the ocean a helping hand.”

This project is a cooperation with the Galapagos Conservation Trust.