In Ecuador, more than 90% of households use clean fuel for cooking [1]. But ambient air pollution is an issue in Ecuadorian cities. For instance, data from Quito and Cuenca indicate that levels of particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) exceed national and WHO standards [2].

Moreover, outside urban areas, oil extraction and refineries are major sources of pollution. In rural sites in the North Amazon Region in Ecuador, oil extraction has generated mixtures of potentially toxic compounds (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metal, and metalloids). The main national refinery and the thermal power plant located in Esmeraldas, on the North Pacific Coast, are considered as important sources of air pollution. Particulate matter (PM10) emitted at both sites could induce respiratory diseases. PM10 values are higher in the refinery than the extraction areas, while other compounds (polyols) are higher in the oil extractions sites than in the refinery [3].

Microbial and chemical contamination of natural freshwater is a problem in Ecuador, where wastewater treatment plants are still missing. A study carried out in 12 rivers in the Coastal, Andean, and Amazonian regions found that all rivers showed levels of E. coli and total coliforms above the maximum limit according to International and Ecuadorian legislations. The most polluted rivers were Zamora, Esmeraldas and Machángara. Several physicochemical and metal elements were highly detected in Guayas, Guayllabamba, and Machángara Rivers [4]. 

In 2017, Ecuador generated about 14.4 thousand tons of waste per day, which represents 0.86 per capita kilograms per day [5], [6]. From this, 57% is organic waste and 43% is inorganic waste, which is made up of plastic (10.6%), cardboard (5.8%), paper (4.4%), non-hazardous sanitary waste (5.1%), and other (16.8%) [6]. Regarding waste management, it is reported that 84.5% of the municipalities have a local solid waste management framework, 50.5% have a system for the treatment and / or final disposal of hazardous waste, 66.2% carry out characterization of their solid waste, 36.5% separate waste at household level, and 37.4% carry out differentiated collection for recyclable waste [5].

The country has more than 500 companies that classify the waste (waste picker organizations) and approximately 200 companies work in recycling and treatment [7]. Moreover, 45.7% of the municipalities have landfills, 28.8% dispose their waste in temporary cells, and 25.6% in open dumpsites or ecosystems. In Ecuador, there are 144 open dumpsites and 77 landfills [6].


Consumption of fossil fuels in transport, energy and industry are primary sources for air pollution in Ecuadorian cities [8], [9].

Unregulated oil exploitation has led to the release of toxic compounds into surface and ground waters [10]. Additionally, the role of artisanal and small-scale gold mining, agriculture, sewage discharge, and domestic practices are evaluated in the context of policy implementation and environmental quality concerns [11]. Regarding agricultural activities, banana and rice industries are the main causers of pesticide pollution in some areas of the country [12].

Ecuador collects 85.5% from the total waste produced every day which implies that 2,000 tons of waste per day are not collected polluting urban, rural areas, and ecosystems. Moreover, the country recycles only 6% of the municipality waste [5].


Key policies and governance approach

The Ecuadorian Environmental Pollution Prevention and Control Law forbids unregulated air, soil, and water pollution. Besides, the country has a special relationship with water law, management, and policy because of its constitutional declaration of water access as a human right [11], [13].

Changes from the mid-2010s to water policy, in addition to the increasing influence of disruptive anthropogenic activities (such as oil, mining, agriculture, and sewage discharge), resulted in the developing of a dynamic and culturally specific framework for water management in Ecuador [11], [14]. Moreover, the integration of management systems into the national framework has afforded rural and isolated regions a voice in policy development under the Ministry of Environment [15].

Ecuador has implemented Extended Producer Responsibility Programs through the Ministerial Agreement 161 [16], including used tires (2014) [17], containers of agricultural pesticides (2013) and batteries and cell phones (2013) [18]. The Agreement obliges producers to meet established collection and/or recycling targets and if the producers fail, they are banned on selling or importing their products [6], [16]. For example, by 2019, there were about 3.14 million End of Life Tires which represent around 51,266 tons of which 23,070 tons (45%) were collected. Tires were transformed into playgrounds, carpets and synthetic courts or energy [6].


Successes and remaining challenges

One of the main challenges that Ecuador still faces is to solve the tradeoffs among the sectors that are the base of its economy, such as oil and agriculture, and the pollution of air, soil, and water that they cause. The political reinforcement of sustainable management is the main challenge to develop the country’s economic activities without compromising air, soil, and water quality [19].

The rise of economic development and unsustainable extraction in Ecuador is leading to overexploitation, pollution, and degradation of the country’s precious natural resources. Large infrastructure projects occur across the country with weak strategic planning and few management plans for following up and monitoring development projects. Government officials responsible for strategic planning and sustainable development often lack technical knowledge or the political will to implement effective and long-lasting environmental governance. As a result, short-term drivers, like profit in support of economic development, govern decision making more than long-term strategies like conservation. However, strategic planning for sustainable, systematic development may actually help to reduce costs and improve the management of development projects in the long-term [20], [21].

Ecuador needs to increase financial and legislative support around the extractive and polluting industries, such as for agriculture, Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM), and sewage treatment, to ensure the long-term safety and sustainability of water access in Ecuador. Additionally, increased efforts to educate industry-specific workers, local management boards, and individuals about potential solutions to water-related challenges will help improve the efficiency of current legislation. Finally, there is a need for additional research on water quality and sustainability in Ecuador, on the social, economic, and environmentally specific factors that influence water security outcomes in the country [11].

Further, the country needs to develop regionally specific solutions for waste management, considering population growth and the region's environmental sensitivity [21]. For example, the Galápagos Islands faces many challenges related to waste management due to the limited disposal space and logistical difficulty of waste movement off the islands. Although there is a plastic bag ban (for those bags with handles only), repurposing of glass bottles on the island, and the collection of plastic bottles and cans for mainland recycling, the import of almost all food and other supplies, in addition to the increasing number of tourists, compounds the waste problem [22].


Initiatives and Development Plans

The National Air Quality Plan seeks to improve air quality in Ecuador and consists of three programs with their respective projects. Such projects include 1) the development of a national emissions inventory, 2) a database with information on sources and emissions, 3) the development of an air quality information system, 4) the implementation of an epidemiological surveillance system for respiratory diseases caused by air pollution, and 5) the development of predictive models of air quality. Moreover, a fundamental element for air quality management is the implementation of emission reduction and control programs [23].

The National Plan for the Integrated and Comprehensive Management of the Water Resources of Basins and Microbasins of Ecuador includes several recommendations and targets for the nine hydrographic demarcations of Ecuador (excluding the Galapagos) for avoiding and decreasing water pollution from different sectors (domestic, industrial, mining, etc). [24].

Ecuador is implementing the National Program for the Integral Management of Solid Waste which plans to enhance the framework of W2E (Waste to Energy) [7]. This program seeks to generate energy by transforming waste. Due to the large amount of organic waste generated daily (57%), it is intended to produce methane into electrical and/or caloric energy [5], [6].


Goals and Ambitions

Regarding water pollution, Ecuador adopted a National Agenda to fulfil the SDGs. In 2017, the country established a baseline, methods, and indicators for access to quality water which indirectly integrates water pollution. By 2030, Ecuador aims to achieve 1) universal access to drinking water at an affordable price, and 2) equitable access to adequate sanitation and hygiene services for all and to end open defecation [25].

Ecuador is committed to promote the reduction of single-use plastics, while improving waste management through different programs like the Extended Producer Responsibility, or the generation of energy based on waste transformation [7], [16], [17]

  • The main opportunities are to reinforce sustainable management in key sectors that cause air, water, and soil pollution, mainly oil, extraction and refinery, agriculture and livestock, and mining. Agricultural and agro-industrial residues have great potential to obtain products with high added value, such as biofuels, bioactive compounds, and biopolymers which are used in different industries such as food, cosmetics, industrial and pharmacological [26].
  • Ecuador needs to increase financial and legislative support around extractive and polluting industries such as agriculture, ASGM, and sewage treatment.
  • The country should develop regionally specific solutions for waste management, considering population growth and the region's environmental sensitivity.
  • Additionally, increased efforts to educate industry-specific workers, local management boards, and individuals about potential solutions to pollution-related challenges will help improve the efficiency of current legislation.
  • Finally, there is a need for additional research on and support to improve water quality and access, and waste collection and management in Ecuador to reduce the pollution of ecosystems and to improve human-wellbeing.

[1] Gould, C., Schlesinger, S., Toasa, A., Thurber, M., Waters, W., Graham, J., & Jack, D. 2018. Government policy, clean fuel access, and persistent fuel stacking in Ecuador. Energy for Sustainable Development, 46, 111–122.

[2] UNICEF Ecuador. (2020). El aire que respiramos: Los efectos de la contaminación del aire y del cambio climático en la salud de la niñez en el Ecuador. Quito: UNICEF Ecuador.

[3] Barraza, F., Uzu, G., Jaffrezo, J. L., Schreck, E., Budzinski, H., Le Menach, K., Dévier, M. H., Guyard, H., Calas, A., Perez, M. I. and Villacreces, L. A. (2020). «Contrasts in chemical composition and oxidative potential in PM10 near flares in oil extraction and refining areas in Ecuador». Atmospheric Environment, 223, p. 117302.

[4] Vinueza, D., Ochoa-Herrera, V., Maurice, L. et al. Determining the microbial and chemical contamination in Ecuador’s main rivers. Sci Rep 11, 17640 (2021).

[5] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos. 2017. Estadísticas Municipales (GAD Municipales 2017). Gestión de Residuos Sólidos, Ecuador, p 26. In:

[6] Holland Circular Hotspot & Huisman, H., Keesman, B., Breukers L. 2021. Waste Management in the LATAM Region. Waste Management Report: Ecuador.

[7] Ministerio del Ambiente y Agua. 2010. Programa Nacional para la Gestión Integral de Desechos Sólidos – PNGIDS Ecuador. [Online]. Available:

[8] FLACSO/MAE/PNUMA. (2008). Estado del aire. GEOECUADOR.   

[9] Moreira-Romero, A(2018). Contaminación del aire en el medio ambiente por las emisiones de gases tóxicos de empresas industriales en Ecuador. Polo del Conocimiento, 3(7), 299.

[10] Laurence Maurice, Fausto López, Sylvia Becerra, Hala Jamhoury, Karyn Le Menach, et al. Drinking water quality in areas impacted by oil activities in Ecuador: Associated health risks and social perception of human exposure. Science of the Total Environment, Elsevier, 2019, 690, pp.1203-1217.

[11] Wingfield, S., Martínez-Moscoso, A., Quiroga, D., Ochoa-Herrera, V., 2021. Challenges to Water Management in Ecuador: Legal Authorization, Quality Parameters, and Socio-Political Responses. Water 2021, 13(8), 1017;

[12] Deknock, A., De Troyer, N., Houbraken, M., Dominguez-Granda, L., Nolivos, I., Van Echelpoel, W., . . . Goethals, P. (2019). Distribution of agricultural pesticides in the freshwater environment of the Guayas River basin (Ecuador). Science of The Total Environment, 646, 996-1008.

[13] Sanchez, E.; Vinueza, R.; Izurieta, X.; Rey, N. Use of muralism to promote awareness about aquatic ecosystems and wise water consumption in northwestern Ecuador. Ocean Coast. Manag. 2020, 190, 5165.

[14] Knapp, G. Mountain agriculture for global markets: The case of greenhouse floriculture in Ecuador. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 2017, 107, 511–519.

[15] Fernández, N.; Buitrón-Cisneros, R. 2012. The right to water and sanitation in Ecuador: Progress, limitations, and challenges. Environ. Justice, 5, 77–81.

[16] Agencia Nacional de Regulación, Secretaría del Agua, Agencia de Regulación y Control del Agua, Ministerio del Medio Ambiente y Ministerio de Salud Pública. (2016). Estrategia nacional de calidad de agua 2016-2030. Quito.

[17] Ministerio del Ambiente. 2013. Principio de Responsabilidad Extendida. Artículo 199 del Reglamento para la prevención y control de la contaminación por sustancias químicas peligrosas, desechos peligrosos y especiales.

[18] Ministerio del Ambiente. 2015. Instructivo para la gestión integral de neumáticos usados.

[19] Adler Miserendino, R., Bergquist, B. A., Adler, S. E., Guimarães, J. R. D., Lees, P. S. J., Niquen, W., . . . Veiga, M. M. (2013). Challenges to measuring, monitoring, and addressing the cumulative impacts of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ecuador. Resources Policy, 38(4), 713-722.

[20] Harris, N., Davis, C., Goldman, E., Petersen, R., Gibbes, S. 2018. “Comparing Global and National Approaches to Estimating Deforestation Rates in REDD+ Countries.” World Resources Institute: Washington D.C.

[21] USAID. 2020. USAID Ecuador. Foreign Assistance Act I 18/19. Tropical Forest and Biodiversity Analysis. p129.

[22] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2020. “In the Galápagos, Fighting the Rising Tide of Plastic Pollution.” [Online]. Available:

[23] Ministerio del Ambiente. 2010. Plan Nacional de Calidad del Aire. 2010, MAE, p. 90.

[24] Changjiang Institute of Survey Planning Design and Research (CISPDR). 2016. Plan Nacional de la Gestión Integrada e Integral de los Recursos Hídricos de las Cuencas y Microcuencas Hidrográficas de Ecuador. Memoria (Versión definitiva), 602 p. 

[25] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (INEC). (2019). Medición de los indicadores de Agua, Saneamiento e Higiene, en Ecuador.

[26] Zambrano, Jhon Enrique, Dueñas-Rivadeneira, Alex Alberto, & Gutiérrez Villanueva, Aixa Rosa. (2021). Biomass of Agricultural water for agroindustrial products obtaining potentialities and Challenges in Ecuador. Centro Azúcar48(3), 120-133. Epub 01 de julio de 2021. Recuperado en 07 de noviembre de 2022.