Plastic eruption in the Gulf of Naples
In the run-up to the µMED - the international conference on microplastic pollution in the Mediterranean - let's expose the ever-growing mountain of disposable plastic in the Gulf of Naples. No one seems to worry, least of all the young people. Is the Gulf of Naples the only place where a plastic eruption is imminent? Certainly not. But it is one of the few places - I believe - where the critical environmental issues are in such stark contrast to the breathtaking landscapes and cultural richness of the region, which seems blessed by the gods.
After almost 20 years of visiting Naples and the magnificent Campi Flegrei area, it is not yet clear to what extent the population is aware of the Planetary Crisis and its three pillars: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Not much, it turns out. But let's not be too quick to judge. The lack of awareness or climate concern must have a deeper cause. Could it be a mindset shaped by serious social and political problems that have dragged on for centuries? In combination with an indifferent government?
During my last visit, I had a look around (August 2022): A surge of plastic waste has overrun the province of Naples, especially beaches, streets and fields. This situation is not new, it's just the latest, post-Corona plastic wave. A state of emergency was already declared in 1994 when toxic waste spilled from a landfill in Pianura.
The plastic trail winds up to the parking lot at the crater of Vesuvius. All cafes and stores offer disposable cups and bags for free and unsolicited. The rest of Italy too, is notorious for the amounts of trash on the beaches. A nationwide count revealed that each meter of coastline is littered with an average of 8 waste items, 84% of which are plastic goods, according to Legambiente's 2022 Beach Litter report. The collected items are mostly disposable tableware (dishes, cups, cutlery, straws) and plastic bags. We can rightly speak of a disposable culture.
Let's open Pandora's box a little further.
Apollo and Jupiter
Holes and cavities in millennia-old walls are invariably crammed with crumpled paper napkins, plastic bottles and cups. Greco-Roman archaeological sites and ruins are used as dumping grounds, such as the walls of Cisterna Romana in Bacoli, the wooded slopes at the foot of the temples of Apollo and Jupiter in the archaeological site of Cuma, the Sepulcrum of the Sibyl of Cuma, the beach of the Roman port in Misenum, and the narrow beach in Baiae, famous for the Roman Terms and a submarine archaeological site. The bushy slopes of Monte di Procida, which offer some of the world's most staggering views - "Stupor Mundi" is engraved on an overlook sign - are also full of dumped trash.
I wonder how less touristic places look.
In terms of global plastic pollution, this article could just as easily have been about Mumbai, Jakarta or Cairo. But in the Gulf of Naples the contrasts are baffling. How can this region shine so brightly for the beauty of its volcanic coastline, epic cultural treasures, ideal mediterranean climate, delicious cuisine and at the same time sink so deeply into menefreghismo ('who cares'-attitude), apparent ignorance and even denial?
A Neapolitan policewoman lifts a tip of the tainted veil. We don't see the garbage, she says. Until we leave and come back. Then suddenly we see it but after a while it dissolves again. La vita va avanti. Life goes on.
It is a survival mechanism, I must conclude. There's actually a more complex history behind it - I'll go into it in more detail in an upcoming article.
By any means, the people of Naples master the art of living. They are skillful at surviving, maneuvering and being happy in a complex society. To do so, you must close your eyes to some things, and not look straight into purgatory, as I, a naïve foreigner, did during my visit. But turning a blind eye will not help understanding the heart of the matter. So I dig further.
January 14, 2022
Disposable plastic was officially banned in Italy as of January 14, 2022. So I hoped to see a difference. But plastic consumption just keeps on going. I asked around in bars and they deny or don't know that such a law is in vigor. A waiter says they may use it while supplies last. But won't the plastic mill just keep turning as long as the hospitality industry keeps ordering? This leads us to the industrial interests that are probably involved. That trace will lead us out of Italy, so let's leave it aside for now.
Others say that plastic consumption began to decline before the corona pandemic started, but the good trend stopped after the outbreak. Disposable table utensils are supposedly more hygienic and were again consumed en masse. Talking about germs, older people remember the 1973 cholera epidemic, which was handled efficiently, especially since the 1911 epidemic was still fresh in the collective memory at the time.
Cholera spreads through contaminated water. Dishes washed with tap water offered no guarantee at the time. Disposable plastic was a temporary solution. Cholera was defeated, in part by vaccines and chlorine in tap water. But the plastic stayed. But it gives a false sense of security because recent studies show that in the oceans, germs hitchhike on plastic waste, enabling it to travel long distances.
Sea of plastic
I search the Internet for Italian articles to see how quickly Italians can find information about the plastic tsunami, as I like to call it. I type in "tazza (or bicchiere) plastica monouso italia". I was hoping for articles by Greenpeace, etc., but Google produces a list of companies that distribute disposable plastic table utensils.
This prompt a new question: do Italians get enough information regarding the effects of the plastic soup on nature and the sea, which is so dear to them? Do they, lovers of seafood, know that marine life is on the edge of collapse due to the abundance of degraded plastic particles and microplastics? And that their Mediterranean Sea, glorified because in so many places the water is "cristallino" (crystal clear), is one of the dirtiest and most warmed-up seas in the world?
Probably many are aware. But those who go looking for environmental information are basically already willing to do otherwise. Greenpeace is active in Naples, the NGO Marevivo was founded by Neapolitan Carmen di Penta, and other NGOs are doing their best to turn the tide, e.g., through the #plasticazero campaign. But it's a drop in the ocean. The system is working against them and not reaching out to those who embrace change.
Garbage collection is disfunctional, you can't walk or cycle anywhere safely, car drivers rule, and merchandise is still triple-wrapped in hygienic-looking confezzioni di plastica. You have to engage in rebellious activism, have the energy and fighting spirit for it, to say no to disposable plastic again and again.
But because I was on holiday, I had energy. I must have come over as a troublemaker, interrogating several unsuspecting locals, especially waiters, fruit sellers, retail personnel and gas station men. I had a little dispute with the fruit vendor lady at the supermarket near Lago Fusaro, who refused my reusable fruit bags. That's forbidden, it has to be in one of our plastic bags. I managed to persuade her and we agreed that it was the politicians' fault and that we should all do our part to protect our planet.
This is how espresso is served
In cafes, every espresso comes with a plastic cup ofwater, often from a plastic bottle and not from the tap. So I ordered "espresso and tap water in a normal glass please". I got quite a few perplexed or bored looks in return. Sometimes I dare to add: plastic is bad for nature, so that the message gets across.
I scroll through the websites of the plastic distributors. Nowadays the plastic is offered as recyclable, which sounds greener. But that's only relevant if it's thrown into the right trash can with a good lid, if it's emptied by the right collection service, and recycled at the factory. It would be foolish to believe it works that way. Each of those steps has many leaks. Otherwise, beaches, streets, forests and main archeological sites and outer walls would be clean.
The beach, including on the isthmus between Capo Miseno, Lago Miseno and Monte di Procida, is littered with disposables after every summer day. The wind did not blown it out of the trash cans. People knowingly leave it there. These are the classier beaches of Naples. I wonder how the other beaches are.
I am a fan of metaphors and imagine that Naples' problems can be represented as Cerberus, the three-headed monstrous dog from mythology. Each head partially explains the general inertia that characterizes Italy. We'll look Cerberus in the eyes in the upcoming article on the Gulf of Naples.
Meanwhile, don't forget to limit your own use of disposables as much as possible, to help turning the plastic tide. The µMED will take place in Naples. But under the guise of covid measures, only 80 participants will be physically admitted to the Partenope Congress Centre. Or are plastic solutions somehow being hindered? You can follow the event online. Save the date: 25-28 September 2022.
- Carrara marble: from the seafloot to Michelangelo's workshop.
- Natural or anthropogenic climate change: which one is faster?
- Planetary boundaries: how safe is the earth for humans?
- The Mediterranean evaporated almost completely during the Messinian Crisis.
- Campi Flegrei super volcano: do we have a Yellowstone in Europe?
Sources: see links in text. Pictures: K. Bonne.
Some keywords: plastic eruption, plastic tide, plastic pollution, plastic pollution in italy, plastic pollution in naples, plastic on beaches in italy, mediterranean plastic, gulf of naples plastic, disposable plastic, naples plastic, microplastics, marine life plastic.
Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on GoodClimateNews.
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