3 Things About Recycling the U.S. Can Learn from the Galapagos


Photo credit: Collin Dunn

The ballooning rates of people coming to the Galapagos, as residents or tourists, over the past few years has created a variety of environmental concerns for the islands. Not least of these is waste management, as the increasing human presence has created an unprecedented amount of waste. While creating and implementing a zero waste management strategy would probably be the most sustainable for the islands, organized recycling only effectively started in 2007, and so zero waste really isn't very feasible just yet.

Still, waste is one of the top two or three ongoing challenges facing the islands (with water and energy also on the list). How do you handle all the stuff that's leftover, and either landfilled, recycled, or composted, when you live on a small island? We took a trip to the Fabricio Valverde Recycling Center, on the island of Santa Cruz to find out.
Photo credit: Collin Dunn

First, a quick backstory. The center came fully online just in 2007 (Brian checked it out when he was here), after Toyota partnered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to help the struggling recycling program in the municipality of Santa Cruz get a better foothold in the community.

Their efforts included helping develop a more sustainable waste management system, along with a recycling outreach campaign -- the first efforts to recycle in the community did not really stick with residents because there wasn't very comprehensive public outreach and education done for the program. This resulted in the first Municipal Environmental Department in the Galapagos, and in the recycling center.

Now, after just over 3 years online, how have they done? Some of the results are surprising; here are three things that the system could teach the U.S.

1. They have better recycling rates than the U.S. after less time

The island currently recycles 35 percent of it's waste (by weight -- that number jumps to 50 percent when considered by volume). Add yard waste and scrap metal, and that number is more like 45 percent, which is as good, or better, in many cases, than most U.S. municipal systems. Yet, the functioning recycling program has only been in place for about three years, versus three decades or more in the U.S., and the systems they have here for collection, sorting, and processing would be considered rudimentary in any municipal system in the States.

For example, all the plastic waste is still sorted and separated by hand, in comparison to the (pretty slick) system of automatic air and water jets now in place in many stateside single-stream recycling centers. So, Santa Cruz island is producing as good or better results with less practice, fewer materials, less money, and older systems. It's pretty impressive.


Mmm, industrial compost. Photo credit: Collin Dunn

2. Composting makes waste management way easier

Since TreeHugger last visited this recycling center, they've added a yard waste and food scrap composting component to the operation. Composting makes sense on so many levels, in so many places, but perhaps no more so than on a small island. Santa Cruz produces about 12 tons of waste per day -- pretty small compared to any developed city -- but still, all that waste has to go somewhere, and if it can't be reused, repurposed, or recycled on the island, it has get shipped back to the mainland.

With organic waste checking in at about 50 percent of those 12 tons, there's definitely no shortage of compostable material, so the installation of the industrial compost system has a hugely positive impact on the island's waste stream. Scaled up to the more places (with more waste per capita) in the United States could net a similar reduction. If they can do it here, why can't it be done in more places with more money and a better infrastructure?


When each beer bottle costs an extra buck, everybody hangs on to them. Photo credit: Collin Dunn

3. Encouraging reuse with a bottle deposit really works

All of these recycling efforts are positive, but, ultimately, solutions that use less stuff and require fewer moving parts are going to be essential for the Galapagos' survival (and the survival of the human race everywhere, really). One example of this is in place already on Santa Cruz, and it's working. There's a deposit of $1 on all beer and soda glass bottles (Ecuador and the Galapagos use the U.S. dollar as their currency), and, considering the value of the dollar here, that's a very steep price to pay; at the same level in the States, it'd be six bucks extra for every six pack, and even for the casual beer or soda enthusiast, that'd add up quickly unless you were hanging on to your bottles to return for the deposit.

It's working great on the island; the return rate is well over 90 percent, and the bottle deposit program is really in it's infancy. Where I live, in Oregon, there are similar statistics and the bottle deposit is just five cents. It follows then that a strong bottle bill, across the entire U.S., would cause energy-intensive glass recycling rates to plummet, and reuse/return rates to go through the roof. Does that makes tons of sense to anyone else?


Here at the recycling center, all plastics have to be separated by hand, either to be ground up or packaging for shipping back to the mainland. Photo credit: Collin Dunn

Recycling: A Work in Progress on the Islands

Despite these pretty impressive numbers and stats from the recycling center on Santa Cruz, it definitely remains a work in progress. A lot of those 12 daily tons of waste still get landfilled, and all the waste and recycling has to go back to the mainland, to the landfill or to the recycling center; the only thing that doesn't leave is the organic waste, which is composted, or the biomedical waste (mostly from the hospital) which is burned on site. That's an awful lot of shipping -- both to and from the island -- and that makes it really expensive, both financially and ecologically.

More conscientious waste reduction is an obvious first step to slowing down the waste stream, in both directions, and it's already happening in some simple ways. More and more of the fresh produce that's shipped to the islands is being peeled first -- we heard an anecdote about a huge load of potatoes with no skins on them -- which has the added benefit of reducing some of the pests that can travel with food, take up residence on the islands, and become invasive and harmful to native and endemic species here.

Further change is necessary to keep the islands from being overrun with waste, but it's a real challenge when so much of the islanders' daily sustenance has to be imported, from water and food all the way down the list. The current system is a huge step up from what was happening before -- most of island's waste was incinerated -- but ultimately, they'll need to find a way to simply require fewer and less wasteful goods for both residents and tourists alike.

More on the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Are the Galapagos Islands Ready for More Tourism?
How Do You Teach Kids to Live Sustainably on an Island?
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)

Tags: Biodegradable | Galapagos | Recycled Consumer Goods | Recycling