Easter Island’s Monumental Garbage Problem

As tourism increases, so does the trash on this remote island

Easter Island Trash
A trash dump outside of the capitol of Easter Island, pictured in 2011 Randy Olson/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Easter Island is best known for the giant stone Moai that dot the island, drawing tens of thousands of tourists each year to gawk at the immense stone faces. But the isolated piece of land in the middle of the Pacific is starting to encounter problems with the large number of people drawn to its most famous attraction.

Swarms of tourists and immigrants from mainland Chile (Chile governs the island) have strained the infrastructure of the island, including the water supply and waste facilities. Garbage in particular is a huge problem.

From the BBC

It produces 20 tonnes of rubbish a day. The recycling plant, opened in 2011, processes 40,000 plastic bottles a month.

But much of the island's garbage cannot be recycled.

"We put it into landfills and they only thing we can do is flatten it," says Easter Island Mayor Pedro Edmunds.

"We can't burn it and we have no more land to dump it in. It attracts rats, mosquitoes and stray dogs."

The growing population and increasing popularity of Easter Island have caused problems for years. In 2009, Bloomberg reported that tourist flights to the island were blocked by islanders frustrated with Chile’s immigration policy. In just seven years, the island’s population doubled as Chileans flocked to the island seeking work in tourism and construction jobs. 

There are also cultural considerations, in addition to the infrastructure troubles. In The Urban Fringe, a planning blog produced by the Berkeley Planning Journal, Gregory Delaune writes

The permanent population of the island has now risen to just over 5,000 and has been growing steadily over the last decade. Approximately half of the population claims full or partial Rapa Nui lineage, which means that they are descended from the 36 individuals who survived to reproduce after the historical 1877 population low of 111. This depopulation of the island, combined with practically no written record of historical facts, or even the indigenous language, has made it difficult for the Rapa Nui to reclaim their cultural heritage. Even the word for “hello” in Rapa Nui has had to be appropriated from other Polynesian languages, because the original word was lost in the cycle of occupation and cultural devastation. Most of the Chilean immigrants who make their living in the tourism industry have little or no connection to the Rapa Nui culture. In fact, many are ex-convicts fleeing their past, or opportunists with no interest in the preservation of the history or culture of the island. 

There’s no easy answer to the troubles facing Easter Island. Tourism is the cornerstone of the local economy, so getting rid of tourists entirely is not an option. One local interviewed by the BBC suggested that Easter Island might look to their distant neighbor, the Galapagos Islands, as a model. The Galapagos charges fees per visitor to visit restricted areas. (But the Galapagos are not without problems of their own, either.) As for the garbage, there are plans to incinerate some of it to generate electricity, but those days are still a long way off. 

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