Revolutionary Recycling Plant Blazes Trail in the Galapagos

recycling center galapagos photo

Photo by participating teacher Sue Cullumber

One of the final stops on the International Teacher Program was a site not quite as quintessentially Galapagos as wandering an uninhabited beach filled with sea lions and marine iguanas, or gazing at sad ol' Lonesome George. No, we rounded out our tour with a visit to one of the most sophisticated recycling centers in all of Latin America—one that uses a GPS tracking system, state-of-the-art glass and plastic grinders, and one that regularly recycles a whopping 30 percent of the Galapagos' most populated island's waste.For a frame of reference, that's the same rate that we recycle back in the US, and the standard of living in the Galapagos is far beneath ours.

When we arrived at the recycling center, the first thing we saw was sprawling stacks of compacted waste—a jarring sight on an island that's less than 1000 square kilometers. We were greeted by Dr. Ulf Torsten Hardter of the World Wildlife Fund, who oversees the station's operation. He explained the waste plight on the Galapagos Islands, and detailed the innovative recycling program.

Between 10 to11 tons of waste is generated every day on Santa Cruz Island alone. Before the center's creation, trash was packed into a tiny landfill on the unpopulated side of the islands, thrown into the ocean by the locals, or burned en masse. The WWF recognized that the problem was gravely dangerous to the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos, so they worked with Toyota to develop a first rate recycling center. Toyota is actually responsible for rescuing the program from ailing funding—Ulf repeatedly thanked Toyota unprompted throughout his presentation. Along with the aforementioned glass and plastic grinder and the fleet of GPS equipped collection trucks, there's a massive compost pile cultivated out back for organic waste.

So far, the operation has recycled over 400,000 tons of waste, with the number growing every year. Typically, the recycled material is sent back to mainland Ecuador, where it's repackaged and sold to China as raw materials. Some of the compost is sold to local farmers for use in lieu of fertilizer.

I noticed Heather Brown, a 7th grade teacher in Boston frantically taking notes and asking questions during the tour—turns out her school has no institutionalized recycling program at all. And it's a pilot school. They throw out countless Styrofoam carriers every day, and she's been looking for a way to implement a more sustainable system. The tour seemed to give her some ammunition for confronting her school board when she returns.

I hope the center continues to run at the inspired rate it has been--drastic measures like this very well may be what's needed to slow the growing human footprint on Galapagos.

30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.

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