A different sea

This project is focusing on a particular comarca (administrative region) in southern east Spain, in Almeria, called Poniente Almeriense. It is also colloquially known as Sea of Plastic (Mar de Plàstico) due to the incredible amount of greenhouses working year-round (invernaderos) covering the entire area on more that 30.000 hectars, or 300 square kilometers. This area serves the majority of Europe, producing every year more than 3 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables [1]

The idea of this report came after viewing an exhibition of satellite pictures of the Earth collected by the ESA, European Space Agency. One of them showed the region from the above and the greenhouses that were clearly visible from space [2]

The feeling I got when I first approached the place was certainly more shocking than expected. The amount of plastic in the area is indeed impressive and it's even more shocking to know that many of those greenhouses are actually not using safe plastic as they are very old and therefore containing dangerous products as Bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is an endocrine disruptor [3] and US FDA banned it from using it in baby bottles, while European Chemicals Agency is considering BPA as a substance of very high concern. Over one million pounds of BPA are released into the environment annually [4] and a lot of it comes from post-consumer life: leaching from landfills, combustion of domestic waste, and degradation of plastics in the environment and it can be found in surface waters, soil, sediments, air, wildlife and last but not least, humans [5].

Walking along the aisles you can actually smell plastic. The temperatures in that area can get as high as 50C (122F) during summer and it is known that heat facilitates BPA leaching [6]. Modern greenhouses are now being gradually introduced, but there is still a substantial presence of very old (and probably illegal) installations and with similar traits: wooden structure, dirty plastic cover kept together by iron strings, rock blocks or other creative inventions. The very first ones were built in the '60s when it was decided to abandon the difficult growth of local table wine grapes as they had no value because the yield was too poor. The strains were left and to protect the area from the winds, always strong in that region, someone had the idea to lay plastic sheets on top. Turned out that with the increased heat and reduced wind, they could get higher yields. The farmers transformed a sterile landscape into a fertile one.

Some of the greenhouses resemble ginormous abandoned ships in the desert, but inside, they can grow up to a quarter million kilos of tomatoes. Others with their square shape look like incomplete or abandoned scaffoldings, long aisles of a city that never came to life, power logs coming out of them, swallowed and incorporated into them. Sand and soil cover the plastic making one dirty powdered place, longing for moisture.

Most are almost in pieces, plastic is teared apart from the greenhouses by the winds, always strong in that area. Stripes of plastic flying around reach the adjacent Mediterranean sea, or accumulate and form piles along the aisles, or contaminate water sources.

Animals don't have where to shelter, eat, drink and try to survive in an hostile plastic world.

Farmers exploit the massive irregular immigration of the area, and workers do not receive adequate payment and the situation has been characterized as a form of modern day slavery with salaries of two euros per hour [7] [8].

This is pushing the envelope on the human-nature relationship: instead of farming dictated by nature, humans are controlling the nature, having many implications on health, society, eating habits, environment, and ultimately the future of the nature itself. Is all of this worth a tomato in winter?


[1] https://agriregionieuropa.univpm.it/it/content/article/31/31/crisi-e-migrazioni-nel-mediterraneo-i-casi-del-poniente-almeriense-e-della

[2] https://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2011/11/Mar_de_plastico_Spain

[3] https://echa.europa.eu/-/msc-unanimously-agrees-that-bisphenol-a-is-an-endocrine-disruptor

[4] https://www.pediatricnursing.org/article/S0882-5963(09)00140-7/fulltext

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4674187/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15712526

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Ejido

[8] https://elpais.com/diario/2007/11/14/cultura/1194994804_850215.html