Contemporary Archaeology as a Framework for Investigating the Impact of Disposable Plastic Bags on Environmental Pollution in Galápagos


  • John Schofield University of York
  • Jerry Aylmer Imperial College London
  • Andy Donnelly Galapagos Conservation Trust and Enviropartner UK Ltd
  • Jen Jones University of Exeter
  • Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez USFQ-UNC-Galápagos Science Center, Galápagos, Ecuador, and School of Science and Engineering, University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia
  • Elena Perez Fulbright Research Grantee
  • Callum Scott University of York
  • Kathy A. Townsend University of the Sunshine Coast



disposable plastic bags, Galapagos, plastic waste, pollution, surface collection, utilization-focused evaluation


This paper presents contemporary archaeology as a novel framework for investigating environmental pollution, specifically marine pollution, which comprises a global “toxic assemblage” of an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic artefacts. The ideas behind this approach were developed in 2018 during a multidisciplinary “Science to Solutions” workshop held in Galápagos (Ecuador), led by the Galápagos National Park and Galapagos Conservation Trust and hosted by the Galapagos Science Center and the Charles Darwin Research Station. These ideas informed two studies which began separately but became increasingly aligned within a contemporary archaeology framework, in effect tackling the same problem from two very different perspectives: the first involving surface mapping, designed to inform an understanding of how plastic items enter the environment, including the marine environment, in the first place; and the second comprising utilization-focused evaluation, designed to better understand people’s behaviours and aspirations. Both of the studies centred on a specific and ubiquitous type of item or artefact: the disposable plastic bag. We conclude that the two studies together demonstrate that, through giving primacy to material culture, contemporary archaeology can (1) serve as a cross-disciplinary framework for tackling environmental pollution, and (2) provide a basis for shaping practice and informing policy.


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Author Biographies

John Schofield, University of York

John Schofield is a professor in the Archaeology Department at the University of York, where he specializes in Cultural Heritage Management and the application of archaeological methods to “wicked” problems of the contemporary world. Prior to his appointment at York in 2010 John held heritage protection and policy positions with English Heritage, England’s national heritage advisory body. Address for correspondence: Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King's Manor, York YO1 7EP, UK.

Jerry Aylmer, Imperial College London

Jerry Aylmer is a conservation scientist whose MSc thesis research at Imperial College London evaluated strategies to reduce plastic-bag use in Galapagos, in partnership with the Galapagos Conservation Trust. He has recently worked on island species and habitat conservation in Mauritius and managed ocal plastics initiatives in Malaysia. Prior to the MSc Jerry had a 15-year engineering and corporate business career in the oil and gas sector.

Andy Donnelly, Galapagos Conservation Trust and Enviropartner UK Ltd

Andy Donnelly is a cross sector partnership specialist with a marine science background. Previously Head of Programmes for Earthwatch Australia and Senior Scientist with the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee, he is now Director of Enviropartner, a consultancy developing partnerships for education and conservation outcomes. His primary client is the Galapagos Conservation Trust, where he leads their Flagship programmes including Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos. Address for correspondence: Galapagos Conservation Trust, Charles Darwin Suite, 7–14 Great Dover St, London SE1 4YR UK.

Jen Jones, University of Exeter

Jen Jones is a marine biologist and PhD student at the University of Exeter. She is also the Head of Programmes for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, a UK NGO that coordinates multi-disciplinary conservation and sustainability programmes in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Along with AD, she designed and developed the Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos Programme that began in 2018. Address for correspondence: Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Geoffrey Pope, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK.

Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez, USFQ-UNC-Galápagos Science Center, Galápagos, Ecuador, and School of Science and Engineering, University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia

Juan Pablo Muñoz Pérez is a PhD student in Sustainability and Environment at the University of Sunshine Coast, Australia, researching plastic pollution in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. He has an MSc in Natural Resource Management from James Cook University in Australia. He is also a research scientist and occasional lecturer at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) Galápagos Campus. Address for correspondence: Sustainability Research Centre, Innovation Centre, USC, 90 Sippy Downs Drive, Sippy Downs, Queensland 4556, Australia.

Elena Perez, Fulbright Research Grantee

Elena Perez is currently an Environmental Resilience Lead at the World Economic Forum. Her Fulbright research aimed to bridge the gap between the local community and research institutions in Galápagos, when she contributed to this research. Holding an interdisciplinary Master’s from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Elena recognizes the inextricable links between people and the environment. She continues to advance environmental justice, address climate change and engage marginalized populations to promote healthier, more resilient communities.

Callum Scott, University of York

Callum Scott is a PhD candidate at the University of York, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (ACCE DTP). His research focuses on the evolution of cognitive variation, with a special interest in the use of quantitative and qualitative methods. Using computer simulation methods, he is currently investigating the adaptive benefits these variations may have had in climatically variable past environments. Address for correspondence: Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King's Manor, York YO1 7EP, UK.

Kathy A. Townsend, University of the Sunshine Coast

Kathy Townsend is a senior lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where she specialises in human impacts on the marine environment and marine vertebrate conservation ecology. Her key contributions to this field of research include global risk analysis on the impact of ingested debris on sea turtles, quantification of plastic ingestion and mortality in sea turtles and the identification of research priorities to support effective manta ray conservation. Address for correspondence: Sustainability Research Centre, Innovation Centre, USC, 90 Sippy Downs Drive, Sippy Downs, Queensland 4556, Australia.


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How to Cite

Schofield, J., Aylmer, J., Donnelly, A., Jones, J., Muñoz-Pérez, J. P., Perez, E., Scott, C., & Townsend, K. A. (2021). Contemporary Archaeology as a Framework for Investigating the Impact of Disposable Plastic Bags on Environmental Pollution in Galápagos. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 7(2), 276–306.