A hillside vantage point provides a panoramic glimpse of the sea of plastic that has swallowed up Almería’s Mediterranean plains. Towns and villages rise from it like islands. To an astronaut orbiting overhead, swathes of Almería appear bleached of all color as the sun’s light rebounds off 370km2 of plastic sheets. It is the largest concentration of greenhouses on the planet. This man-made landscape is a result of an agricultural boom that since the 1960s has turned this arid corner of Spain into the fruit and vegetable market of Europe.
This is the Mar de Plástico.
The Campo de Dalías coastal plain is the densest pocket of the “Mar de Plástico.” Here, thousands upon thousands of greenhouses stretch between the towns of El Ejido and La Mojonera, among others. Significant accumulations of greenhouses can be seen farther afield, running south to Motríl and north to Níjar. They are present in other areas of Southern Spain, too.
It’s mid-July 2023, when REVOLVE visits, and many of the greenhouses are empty, lying in wait for the next planting season the following month. There is little action, although occasionally the languid heat is interrupted by a passing worker on an electric scooter, or a truck emblazoned with images of vegetables.
The province of Almería is home to an estimated 370km2 of greenhouses, equating to an area greater than the country of Malta. Of that total, around 222km2 of greenhouses are located on the Campo de Dalías coastal plain southwest of Almería city.
The breathtaking concentration of greenhouses stands testament to an agricultural boom that began some 50 years ago and that has since turned the region into the fruit and vegetable basket of Europe.
During the growing periods, greenhouses burgeon with tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, watermelon, and lettuce. Intensive greenhouse techniques maximize output by harnessing the hot and sunny climate in combination with hydroponics. This means farmers can harvest produce several times a year and sell fresh fruit and vegetables to Northern European countries during the winter.
The economic prowess of intensive agriculture in the region is a source of local pride and has a ripple effect on the economy. In El Ejido, adverts sell greenhouse insurance and seeds while phone numbers spraypainted on the side of greenhouses offer bleaching and plastic disposal services.
While farmers are obliged by law to dispose of plastic through official channels, some black-market services offer to undercut prices only to dump the plastic elsewhere. Such piles of garbage can also be seen on Google Maps and have given rise to volunteer initiatives calling on the authorities to clean up the mess. The longer the plastic waste is left out in the open, the more chance it has of breaking down and releasing microplastics into the soil and bodies of water.
As well as citizen action, there are official bodies working to improve plastic recycling in the province. The RECICLAND project underway at the Andalusian Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training (IFAPA) is a multi-pronged program that uses a demonstration site to showcase more sustainable plastic and food waste management through efficient recycling practices and composting, among other things.