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A Guide to Pooping in the Galápagos Islands

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Galápagos National Park is an ecological treasure trove, a biological hoard guarded fiercely by conservationists. Visitors to the islands must abide by the park’s rules, which include not taking anything from the wilderness—or leaving anything behind.

The park is prized for both its mind-boggling biodiversity and its historical significance, for it was on those desolate, craggy shores and in those primeval forests that a young Charles Darwin observed and collected the unique plants and animals that would inspire his theory of evolution. The archipelago, mused the naturalist in his journal, “seems to be a little world in itself.”

Darwin’s research there transformed the islands into an object of scientific and cultural fascination, as well as a bucket-list destination. In 1978, UNESCO honored the archipelago and its living treasures by naming it the first-ever World Heritage site. Ninety-seven percent of the islands’ area was designated a national park; the remaining 3 percent was set aside for human habitation. The parklands and their inhabitants are truly wild, offering no shelter, no Internet access, and no bathrooms.

Which raises the question: How do you poop in the Galápagos Islands? You’ve got a few options, none of them luxurious. According to naturalist guide Fabian Bucheli, if a park tourist has an urgent need to go, he or she will be told to hold it (island visits last a maximum of four hours), or directed back to the tour boat or toward one of the islands’ few inhabited areas. Leaving isn’t always possible, however, and Bucheli admitted that in some cases he and other guides will simply “dig a hole and cover the sample.”

Why is pooping there such a big no-no?

That moment when the crap hits the sand is actually where things get interesting. Human poop contains millions of unique bacteria, not to mention the remains of non-native plants and animals. Our waste takes more than a year to biodegrade, and in that time a single human “deposit” has the potential to shift the future of entire ecosystems.

“Whatever you eat, whatever is inside you, you introduce," says Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who also answers to “Dr. Germ.” Our fecal bacteria, he says, are a force to be reckoned with. The human gut has been described as “the densest bacterial ecosystem known in nature.” Of all the bacterial warriors in our bellies, Dr. Gerba believes that three in particular could cause problems in the Galápagos: Campylobacter, which can infect birds; Salmonella, which can infect reptiles and amphibians; and E. coli, which can infect just about everything.

When a disease passes from a non-human animal to a human, it’s known as zoonosis. Some of the most dreaded diseases in human history—anthrax, cholera, plague, and HIV/AIDS, for example—result from zoonotic infections. The reverse situation, in which human beings transmit disease to non-human animals, is far less considered. The field of reverse zoonosis is a young one, according to Dr. Gerba. “Everybody’s always worried about wildlife infecting us,” he says. “They never think about it the other way around.”

Whether we’re worried about it or not, it’s already happening. A 2012 study discovered that some land and marine iguanas and the islands’ famed giant tortoises harbored antibiotic-resistant E. coli and Salmonella bacteria. The affected populations had only one thing in common: proximity to human settlements or tourist sites. Years of isolation have rendered the park’s flora and fauna vulnerable to any disease we bring in from the outside world.

There’s also the issue of plants. For thousands of years, the immobile plant kingdom has relied upon the legs and wings of animals for dissemination. Birds, bears, and humans eat the plant’s ripe fruit and poop out the indigestible seeds, carrying the plant’s genes farther than they could have gone alone. Could plant matter in human feces introduce entirely new plant species to the Galápagos? It’s “a distinct possibility,” says Stephen Walsh, a professor of geography and the director of UNC’s Center for Galápagos Studies. “What has kept the islands so unique all these years is their isolation. But they are isolated no more, and the human imprint is dramatic.”

So What Can Be Done?

Poop problems are not unique to the Galápagos. To protect high-traffic wildlands and prevent the spread of human diseases, some U.S. parks now require hikers and campers to “pack out” their own waste in plastic bags. (Needless to say, these new regulations have not been enthusiastically embraced by park regulars.) Other parks have set up authorized toilet sites, which are emptied by unfortunate staffers on a regular basis.

The toilet issue even has its own Lorax. Conservationist and activist Kathleen Meyer has devoted her life to exploring and protecting our planet, but she’s best known as the author of the international bestseller How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. Meyers is a strong proponent of “packing it out,” whether that means using a portable commode, a double-bagging system, or her own “Shhh!-it Kit,” which is still in its prototype phase.

Meyer’s methods are not without their detractors. If an iguana can turn a beach into a bathroom, the skeptics want to know, then why can’t we? One word: airplanes. The crucial difference between our poop and an iguana’s, says Meyer, is range. Other animals have limited territories, but we humans can fly around the world, bringing all our little nasties with us. The same isolation that makes the Galápagos Islands a desirable vacation spot transforms them into a volatile hub of international microbe activity.

The bottom line (no pun intended): when we set foot on islands like the Galápagos, we set in motion a chain of events that we cannot control. Our bodies are portable universes, teeming with galaxies of germs and tiny, strange creatures that Darwin would have loved to see.

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The UK Is Getting a New Paper Straw Factory to Wean the Country Off Plastic
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As the negative environmental impact of plastic straws becomes more and more clear—each of those single-use straws can take hundreds of years to decompose—several cities and organizations have decided to either reduce or eliminate their use entirely. Buckingham Palace is ditching them, as is Alaska Airlines; cities like Seattle, Washington and Malibu, California have already banned them; and some multinational companies, like McDonald's, have floated the idea of phasing them out.

To fill the void, a new factory dedicated to producing paper straws is opening in Wales, The Guardian reports. Transcend Packaging, a new paper straw manufacturer, is opening a factory in Ebbw Vale, Wales, and plans to be running at full capacity by 2019. The paper straw plant will be the only one of its kind in Europe, its owners say.

The UK has been leading the charge against plastic straws over the past few months. The country plans to ban single-use plastics like straws as early as 2019. Yet plenty of people are loath to change their straw-sipping ways. While there are alternatives to plastic straws, including reusable silicone, glass, and stainless steel versions, not everyone is going to adapt to a BYO-straw world immediately. While biodegradable, disposable straws exist, they’re not common enough to be cost-effective. The UK hasn’t had a domestic producer of paper straws for decades, and has to import them from China—which is not exactly an eco-friendly process.

This is where Transcend comes in, providing a domestic supply of eco-friendly paper straws to the UK restaurants and chains that have vowed to nix their plastic straw addiction. Though McDonald's ultimately decided not to do away with plastic straws in the U.S., it is still eliminating plastic straws in its UK locations, and Transcend is set to supply paper straws to 1361 of the company's British restaurants beginning in September.

The European Union has also proposed a ban on single-use plastics [PDF], so paper straws will no doubt be in even higher demand in the next few years, meaning that Transcend’s factory probably won’t remain the only one of its kind for long.

[h/t The Guardian]

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8 Projects That Reenvision the Traditional Cemetery
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Globally, nearly 57 million people died in 2016. If you happen to be a cemetery caretaker, you might be wondering where we managed to put them all. Indeed, many cemeteries in the world’s major cities are filling up fast, with no choice left but to tear up walkways, trees, and green spaces just to make room for more graves.

In response to these concerns, a variety of visionaries have attempted to reimagine the modern cemetery. These plans tend to fall into one of two camps: Biologists and environmentalists have brainstormed alternate methods for disposing of bodies, some of which are said to be better for the planet than the traditional methods of burial and cremation. Meanwhile, architects have looked at ways of adapting the burial space itself, whether that means altering a traditional cemetery or creating something new and more ephemeral. Here are just a few of the creative ideas that have emerged in recent years.

1. VERTICAL CEMETERIES

As cemeteries started running out of ground to dig, it was only a matter of time before they started building up. There's been a lot of talk about skyscraper cemeteries in recent years, although the idea dates back to at least 1829, when British architect Thomas Willson proposed a 94-story mausoleum in London.

"The vertical cemetery, with its open front, will become a significant part of the city and a daily reminder of death’s existence," says Martin McSherry, whose design for an open-air skyscraper cemetery with layers of park-like burial grounds was one of the proposals presented at the Oslo Conference for Nordic Cemeteries and Graveyards in 2013. Another recent plan by architecture students in Sweden suggested repurposing a cluster of silos into a vertical columbarium (a place to store urns). Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica was one of the first places to implement this vertical concept back in 1984, and at 32 stories high, it currently holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest cemetery.

2. REUSABLE GRAVES

For much of human history, graves were often reused, or common graves were dug deep enough to accommodate multiple bodies stacked one on top of the other. “Our current cemetery design is actually a pretty new thing,” Allison Meier, a New York City cemetery tour guide (and Mental Floss writer), tells us. “It wasn’t normal for everyone to get a headstone in the past and we didn’t have these big sprawling green spaces.”

Now that many urban cemeteries are filling up, the idea of reusing plots is once again gaining popularity. In London, it’s estimated that only one-third of the city’s boroughs will have burial space by 2031. In response, the City of London Cemetery—one of the biggest cemeteries in Britain—has started reusing certain grave plots (the practice is legal in the city, even though grave reuse is outlawed elsewhere in England).

Across continental Europe, however, it's not uncommon for graves to be "rented" rather than bought for all eternity. In countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Greece, families can hold a plot for their loved one as long as they continue to pay a rental fee. If they stop paying, the grave may be reused, with the previous remains either buried deeper or relocated to a common grave.

Meier says she isn’t aware of any cemeteries in New York City that have started reusing their plots, though. “That’s a tough thing for Americans to get on board with because it’s been a normal practice in a lot of places, but it’s never been normal here,” she says.

3. A FLOATING COLUMBARIUM

A rendering of a floating columbarium
BREAD Studio

Ninety percent of bodies in Hong Kong are cremated, according to CNN, and niches in the city's public columbaria are at a premium. The average wait for a space is about four years, sparking concerns that Hong Kongers could be forced to move their loved ones' ashes across the border to mainland China, where more space is available. (A space at a private columbarium in Hong Kong can be prohibitively expensive, at a cost of about $128,000.) To address this issue, a proposal emerged in 2012 to convert a cruise ship into a floating columbarium dubbed the “Floating Eternity.” Designed by Hong Kong and London-based architecture firm BREAD Studio, the columbarium would be able to accommodate the ashes of 370,000 people. Although it's still just an idea, BREAD Studio designer Benny Lee tells CNN, "A floating cemetery is the next natural step in Hong Kong's history of graveyards."

4. UNDERWATER MEMORIALS

An underwater lion sculpture and other memorials
Neptune Reef

Land may be limited, but the sea is vast—and several companies want to take the cemetery concept underwater. At Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida, human ashes are mixed with cement to create unique memorials in the shape of seashells and other objects of the client's choice. The memorials are then taken by divers to the ocean floor and incorporated into a human-made reef designed to look like the Lost City of Atlantis. Eternal Reefs, based out of Sarasota, Florida, offers a similar service.

5. SPACE MEMORIALS

Not a water person? Try space instead. Elysium Space, a San Francisco-based company founded by a former software engineer at NASA, offers a couple of “celestial services.” At a cost of nearly $2500, the Shooting Star Memorial “delivers a symbolic portion of your loved one’s remains to Earth’s orbit, only to end this celestial journey as a shooting star,” while the Lunar Memorial will deliver a "symbolic portion" of human remains to the surface of the moon for a fee of nearly $10,000. Another company, Celestis, offers similar services ranging in price from $1300 to $12,500.

6. HUMAN COMPOSTING

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Critics of burial and cremation say both are bad for the environment. To address the need for a memorial method that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, waste resources, or release carcinogenic embalming fluid into the soil, a number of eco-friendly options have emerged. One such innovation is the “mushroom burial suit," a head-to-toe outfit that's lined with mushroom spores designed to devour human tissue and absorb the body's toxins. Another company, Recompose, espouses human composting—a process by which a corpse would be converted into a cubic yard of soil, which could then be used to nurture new life in a garden. The procedure isn’t legal yet, but the company plans to work with the Washington State legislature to make it available to the general public before eventually rolling it out nationwide.

7. DEATH AS ART

Many innovative proposals have emerged from the DeathLAB at Columbia University, including a plan to convert human biomass (organic matter) into light. The design—a constellation of light that would serve as both a memorial and art installation—won a competition hosted by Future Cemetery, a collaboration between the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society and media company Calling the Shots. John Troyer, director of the UK-based center, says they're working on raising funds to install a concept piece based on that design at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, but any usage of actual biomass would have to be cleared through the proper regulatory channels first. According to DeathLAB, the project would save significant space—within six years, it would more than double the capacity of the cemetery orchard where the memorials would be installed.

8. VIRTUAL CEMETERIES

As virtual reality technology gets more and more advanced, some question whether a physical cemetery is needed at all. The website iVeneration.com, founded by a Hong Kong entrepreneur, lets users "create virtual headstones anywhere in an augmented reality landscape of Hong Kong, including such unlikely places as a downtown park," as Reuters describes it. In Japan, one online cemetery allows the bereaved to “light” incense, share memories of their loved one in comments, and even grab a virtual glass of beer. Similarly, an app called RiPCemetery created a social network where users can craft a virtual memorial and share photos of the deceased.

However, Troyer says he doesn’t believe technology will ever usurp the need for physical spaces. “A lot of the companies talking about digital solutions talk about ‘forever’—and that’s very complicated with the internet, because the virtual material we create can easily disappear," he told the The Guardian. "The lowly gravestone has been a very successful human technology, and I suspect it will last … I would go with granite.”

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