Europe's Dirty Little Secret: Moroccan Slaves and a 'Sea of Plastic'
It seemed like a wonderful idea—driving the Spanish coast from Barcelona all the way down to the Straits of Gibraltar. We got there in April, right before tourist season, and happily missed much of the vacationing European onslaught. Our goal was to hit the smaller less-touristy beach towns to do some diving, paddleboarding and beachcombing along the Mediterranean Coast.
South of Barcelona, we stayed in L'Ampolla and enjoyed near-deserted beaches, hotels and restaurants. Next stop was Altea—absolutely beautiful, also with few tourists, and with that amazing wall of mountains as the backdrop, the Sierra de Bernia. Further along the coast, the water was the most curious blue I'd seen in El Portus, and had the wind and surf not been pounding, it would have been a great place to paddleboard and sea kayak.
But it was just south of El Portus, after the city of Mazarron along E-15 where we started seeing the first few greenhouses.
I was there with Catherine Ebeling—bestselling author of diet and health books—and I am an environmental activist, and so for the two of us, the idea of greenhouses seemed quaint and healthy, at first. It was like: “Look at that, greenhouses, what a great way to create sustainability and locally grown food." But as we motored along E-15—through the desert valley and then finally into the cities in and around Campo Hermoso—the landscape changed dramatically. It went from a view of the beautiful azure Mediterranean Sea with gently sloping hills and mountains, to patches of white plastic here and there, expanding to greater and greater expanses of white plastic, until it became almost solid white plastic covering the landscape as far as the eye could see, blotting out everything.
They call it a “Sea of Plastic" and the “vast expanse of polytunnels." The further we drove, nearer and through Almeria into the city of El Ejido, I started thinking of it as the apocalypse. But the visual onslaught is the least of the problem—news articles have reported on the issues with the greenhouses many times, environmental groups have tried to address the problem and governments have launched efforts to mitigate it.
As we drove along, the smell of plastic and chemicals permeated the car and offered the first scent of the larger environmental problem. The greenhouses are almost all hydroponic—growing vegetables in water, air and a chemical stew of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide. Due to the hot and extremely difficult working conditions inside the greenhouses, almost all of the human labor is imported, much of it slave-like from Africa.
The growth in greenhouses started in the late 1970s as a local response to an economic opportunity to provide vegetables to the European marketplace. The transformed landscape has also transformed the economy from a land of farmers struggling in dry rocky soil in the 1970s to an economy of extremely wealthy greenhouse owners. By 2004, thousands of small landowners had turned their entire property—every square inch—into greenhouse farms as the vegetables started appearing in grocery stores and restaurants across the European continent, especially in the UK and also in Paris. In the 2000s, immigrants from Africa—many with no legal papers—were shipped in by the hundreds per boatload to work in the plastic greenhouses.
By 2011, a news report in The Guardian said that more than 100,000 workers toil away inside the greenhouses, many living in “inhuman" slums and laboring in the chemical stew. The report noted:
- “Migrant workers from Africa living in shacks made of old boxes and plastic sheeting, without sanitation or access to drinking water.
- Wages that are routinely less than half the legal minimum wage.
- Workers without papers being told they will be reported to the police if they complain.
- Allegations of segregation enforced by police harassment when African workers stray outside the hothouse areas into tourist areas."
A 2013 documentary film, The Morrocan Slaves of El Ejido, Spain (Esclave marocain a El Ejido, Espagne), chronicled the plight of the migrant workers toiling inside the hot greenhouses as well as their difficult lives outside of work.
In 2014, amidst a large controversy, a Spanish TV station created a fictional crime drama, Plastic Sea (Mar de Plastico), that highlighted much of the crime, labor and environmental chaos surrounding the greenhouse farms.
A 2015 report in NaturPhilosophie noted that, in addition to the massive human rights problems, the area is plagued with depleted aquifers, the largest desalination plant in Europe to keep water flowing into the greenhouses, and rising cancer rates due to pesticide exposure among workers.
Waste from the “farms" is reported to run off into the Mediterranean Sea, including the chemical waste, plastic waste and human waste of the workers. Entire industries have popped up in the area simply to make the massive amount of plastic for the greenhouses which has a short lifespan and is sometimes discarded, strewn across the landscape or washed into the sea.
Some observers call it a $1 billion “miracle economy," while others call it the “exploitation of cheap labor with no rights" and “environmental devastation." The swath of greenhouses is massive enough to be seen from space and has been described as a “Dystopian Sea."
The area is so large that it actually creates its own “albedo effect" because it reflects the sun's rays and cools the atmosphere. Scientists claim that local temperatures have actually decreased by 1 degree since 1980, while other areas of Spain have increased by 1 to 3 degrees over the same time period.
All of the negative publicity has caused the greenhouse corporations, as well as the local governments, to combat the tide of news stories with greenwashed news releases (like this video) that, among other things, even brag about the albedo effect by saying that the greenhouses serve a public good by cooling the climate on the Southern Iberian Peninsula. The controversy continues to escalate month-by-month as the number of greenhouses increase and stretch farther and farther up and down the coastline.
As we drove through and beyond El Ejido, the greenhouses continued to stretch along the road in La Rabita and Carchuna. Finally, in the tourist area of Nerja, we could see no more greenhouses—from the road at least—and a sense of relief set in. The drive was very unsettling, causing a tightness in our chests and cringe on our faces—the continual glare of the white and the smell of plastic and chemicals gave us headaches that we tried to wash away with long gulps of bottled water.
As we dined that evening in Nerja, we ordered a salad the same as we had in restaurants all across southern Europe. The romaine lettuce, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots took on an all new look and flavor now colored by our education about the source of the food. The waitress proudly exclaimed that the salad was “locally grown."
The next morning we rented standup paddleboards and paddled along the cliffs just north of Nerja. The Mediterranean Sea was quiet and crystalline clear. A few hundred yards north of Nerja we paddled under a beautiful waterfall careening over the cliff above and splashing into the Sea. The fresh water felt wonderful washing over my head, clearing the dystopian sea of plastic from my brain.
But then we paddled a few hundred yards farther south and saw greenhouses perched on the cliffs above and stretching intermittently along the coast. It seemed like the greenhouses were everywhere. When I got back to our hotel that night I looked on Google Earth, and indeed, the stream from the waterfall ran right through acres of greenhouses up on the cliffs that we couldn't see from the water below. Was that lovely waterfall actually a toxic stream of runoff from the plastic greenhouses?
NaturPhilosophie reports that tens of millions of acres of land across the planet are now covered by plastic greenhouses or plastic mulch directly on top of ground. Eighty five percent of those greenhouses are in Asia. The future presented by the greenhouses of Almeria, Spain, is not a clean eco-tech environment like in the Biosphere project in the desert of Arizona that Americans are familiar with. Conversely, it's an environmental dystopia filled with slave-like labor, chemical-laden food and intense heat. Is this the new wave of farming? An apocalyptic world covered by plastic may await us.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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