The Galapagos Islands – 965 kilometers (600 miles) from the coast of Ecuador – are best known for inspiring Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection but now, they are embroiled in a plastic crisis. Tons of plastic are washing up on the archipelago's shores and threatening the thousands of species that live there, many of which can be found nowhere else on the planet.
Sea lions have been spotted using plastic bottles as playthings. Hermit crabs are moving into bottle caps – not shells. Galapagos finches have been observed lining their nests with plastic fibers and Galapagos green turtles are gorging on plastic bags, mistaking their translucent sheen for jellyfish.
These depressing symbols of our throwaway culture were broadcast in an exclusive report by British television channel ITV. Journalists interviewed local experts and specialists studying marine plastics at the University of Exeter who aim to determine the total impact of plastic in the Galapagos – as well as a way to bring an end to this never-ending tide of plastic debris.
A sea lion playing with a plastic bottle. Chris Carpineti, Alfredo Carpineti/IFLScience
Plastic pollution was brought to mass attention last year, largely thanks to the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. According to the UN, the volume of plastic garbage that enters the ocean is as high as 13 million tonnes (14.3 tons) every single year and it's expected to triple by 2025. At least half of that is disposable plastic, which can hang around in the environment for 500 years.
Some of that plastic ends up in the Galapagos, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Today, roughly 97 percent of the archipelago is off limits to humans and can only be visited under supervision but, despite strict zoning and regulation of its land and bans on plastic straws and bags, it cannot escape the worldwide impacts of ocean pollution.
The majority of plastic found, the researchers say, is thought to originate from South America and the Pacific. Plastic drinks bottles seem to be the biggest problem (at least in terms of sheer number) and many feature Asian writing. But experts don't believe debris can travel from as far as Asia. Most likely, these bottles were disposed of by passing commercial and fishing vessels.
But the problem doesn't stop at bottles and bags. As plastic disintegrates, it releases microparticles and these are much harder to remove. Microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long and can be also found in health and beauty products, are consumed by animals across all levels of the food chain. While there is not yet enough research on the effects of microplastics, studies have shown that they can be toxic to the birds and fish that eat them.
For the full ITV report, check out the video below.