galapagos national park bans plastic bags.

Galapagos National Park rangers and students handing out free, reusable shopping bags. Courtesy of Galapagos National Park.

Our hats are off to officials in the Galapagos Islands for phasing out the use of plastic shopping bags in an effort to protect wildlife and reduce litter, pollution, and overall waste in the archipelago.

The project began last December when Galapagos National Park (GNP) rangers and student participants in the GNP’s environmental program began going door-to-door to deliver free, reusable cloth shopping bags to residents and to raise awareness about the environmental impact of careless plastic consumption. Employees of local businesses also received training on how to encourage consumers to use the recyclable bags and limit their use of plastics.

The next phase of the ban is slated to take effect in August when authorities will prevent the entry, distribution, and sale of prohibited plastic items throughout the archipelago. While it doesn’t sound like plastic bags already in circulation will be confiscated, officials say that their goal is to completely eliminate the use of prohibited plastics by 2017.

According to the GNP, 4.5 million bags are used in the islands each year. Unfortunately, once an item reaches the islands it’s very difficult to get rid of. “The average use of these bags is 15 minutes, but their degradation takes 200 years,” Viviana de la Rosa, the head of environmental education at the Galapagos National Park, told Telesur. Sadly, even when a plastic bag does eventually break down, it releases toxins into the environment.

Conservationists estimate that plastics contribute to the deaths of  1.5 million seabirds, fish, whales, and turtles each year.

There is no word yet on what will happen if a tourist unwittingly violates the new rule, but our guess is that officials will be looking for the contraband items at airports on the mainland and offenders will simply be asked to leave their plastic bags behind.

Last year, just over 200,000 tourists visited the Galapagos Islands and there are now about 27,000 people living there full time. In our view, the ban on plastic bags in the Galapagos is logical and long overdue and an important step towards protecting wildlife and making tourism in the islands more sustainable.