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.

A view of the “Mar de Plástico” in Almería, Spain.

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.

A delivery truck travels past rows of greenhouses, near La Mojonera, Spain.
Greenhouses perched on a hill in the Níjar countryside near Almería, Spain.

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.

A general view of the greenhouses on the Campo de Dalías, near El Ejido, Spain.

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.

Crops grow underneath a greenhouse in La Mojonera, Spain.

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.

Greenhouses near Almería, Spain.

Between October 2021-22, Almeria’s greenhouses produced over 3.5 million tons of horticultural produce, drumming up some 2.79 billion euros. Around three quarters of the produce in that campaign was exported to 13 European Union countries and the United Kingdom. Germany was the top buyer that year, importing nearly 950,000 tons of produce. 

Plastic waste at an illegal dumping site in the Níjar countryside, Spain.

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.

A worker travels down the road near Almería, Spain.

The shantytowns and rundown buildings in the region tell another side of the economic success story. It is a well-documented one of often dire working and living conditions for the many thousands of mainly migrant workers who toil under the sea of plastic. On top of the acute social issues are environmental ones stemming from the mass use of plastic.

Bundles of plastic at a recycling plant near El Ejido, Spain.

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.

Tomatoes being used as compost to revive barren land at the RECICLAND project in La Mojonera, Spain.

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.

An entrance to a greenhouse farm near Almería, Spain.
Piles of plastic waste at a sorting facility near El Ejido, Spain.
Dust-stained plastic roofing at a greenhouse farm near Almería, Spain.
An abandoned greenhouse on a side road near La Mojonera, Spain.
A gecko inside a manmade construction designed to boost biodiversity as part of the RECICLAND project in La Mojonera, Spain.

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