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Pacific project will build a circular economy to target plastic pollution

18 November 2020

Scientists aim to tackle plastic pollution in the Galapagos Islands and wider Eastern Pacific in a major project based on cooperation with local researchers and communities.
Galapagos plastic survey. Image courtesy of Andy Donnelly, Galapagos Conservation Trust

Plastic pollution is getting worse in this region and globally, and the new project – led by the University of Exeter and the Galapagos Conservation Trust and involving Plymouth Marine Laboratory – will map the sources of plastic waste, investigate its effects and generate solutions to reduce waste.

Researchers will work with governments, businesses, charities, local scientists and communities to "co-design" effective, long-lasting ways to cut plastic pollution

The four-year project – called "Reducing the impacts of plastic waste in the Eastern Pacific Ocean" – has received a £3.3 million grant from UK Research and Innovation's Global Challenges Research Fund.

The project team also contains seven universities from Ecuador, Peru, Chile and the UK and an extensive network of collaborators across multiple sectors and all stages of the flow of plastics.

"This challenge requires a regional-scale approach that allows us to properly understand sources, sinks and impacts and it brings together experts from multiple fields," said project leader Professor Tamara Galloway, of Exeter's Global Systems Institute.

Prof. Galloway continued: "Our vision is to reduce plastic leakage in the Eastern Pacific region, by creating a more circular economy; by designing out waste and pollution, keeping items in use for longer and regenerating natural systems. Over the last three years, we have established an enthusiastic network across the region committed to designing and implementing solutions for lasting change in Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Our network has strong relationships with research institutions, national park managers and environment ministries in each country."

Plastic pollution is a particular concern in this region because its seas contain rich biodiversity – including many species found nowhere else on Earth – and fishing and eco-tourism are major sources of income. 

Prof. Pennie Lindeque, Head of Science for Marine Ecology and Biodiversity at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, commented: “It is sad to realise that the impacts of plastic pollution reach every corner of our planet, including the beautiful and unique Galapagos Islands in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. However, we are delighted to be part of the interdisciplinary project team that will work with local networks to turn the tide on plastic waste and pollution."

"At PML we will contribute to understanding the impacts of plastic pollution on commercially important species and fisheries products in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, and model socal and economic impacts for key industries such as fisheries, aquaculture and tourism", Prof. Lindeque continues. "By deploying a truly multidisciplinary approach to this trans-boundary problem, and working closely with local stakeholders, we hope to ensure appropriate and sustainable solutions to maintain a healthy, productive and biologically diverse environment for future generations”

"We want to create solutions that benefit everyone – from poorer coastal communities to people in huge cities like Lima – and are also good for wildlife and wider ecosystems," said Jen Jones, of the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the University of Exeter. "Workshops with local people are a key part of our approach, and many of our best ideas have come from schoolchildren who are concerned about plastic pollution."

Jones said the project aims to create "self-sustaining" solutions that benefit people and keep plastic out of the oceans, and added: "We hope our approach – identifying the issues and possible solutions with local involvement at every stage – can provide a 'toolkit' that could be used to tackle plastic pollution elsewhere in the world."