Looking at the earth at night and seeing the prettily twinkling light from cities gives you a clear sense of how mankind’s activities are distributed. In the areas enveloped in jet-black darkness, you can imagine all sorts of things, like dense forests where no sign of fire shows and nocturnal animals running rampant, or completely dried-out deserts, or perhaps extreme-cold parts where there is no life.
And in contrast, seeing the earth in the daytime you might notice “the earth is blue” and find a variety of appearances in its expansive oceans and continents. Of course, you’d be able to see the historical heritage mankind has built up over many years, cities, industrial zones, and all the rest from up there in the sky, but when it comes to immediately recognizing a single structure with the naked eye, there aren’t all that many. The Great Wall of China is an immense 6,000 km in total length, but it’s narrow, only 6-10 m, so finding it with the naked eye is difficult, and even the great pyramids of Egypt are difficult to distinguish and you really have to look hard to find them.
That’s where the Sea of Plastic comes in. It’s a conglomeration of greenhouses people have been busy building in the south of Spain on the Mediterranean coast, and is particularly dense in the province of Almeria. Spanish-born Michael Lopez-Alegria, Commander of Expedition 14, a long 217-day expedition to the space station from 2006 to 2007, commented that “the artificial structure that can be seen most easily from orbit is the fields of greenhouses in Almeria.”
The Iberian Peninsula and North Africa from the space station. The circle indicates El Ejido, where the greenhouses are particularly dense. Image courtesy of UNICA Group.
This is what it looks like enlarged. The total area of greenhouses is 12,647 hectares (2017). That is about 55% of the area of Osaka City. Image courtesy of NASA.
Despite the warm climate, this region wasn’t suitable for agriculture because of the poor, dry, semi-desert-like soils and the strong winds and it made only a meager living from growing cactuses and olives. Starting about 50 years ago, greenhouse cultivation techniques were initially developed to counter the wind but now support the cultivation of vegetables and fruits including tomato, bell peppers, cucumber, melon, and watermelon, as well as flowers such as roses and carnations, and it has become a leader in modern intensive agriculture.
The greenhouse agriculture in Almeria province is now called the “vegetable garden of Europe” as a result of Almeria’s persistent effort and application of knowledge and inventiveness, spurred by the need to preserve livelihood, not because of a decree issued by an emperor or a pharaoh. This greenhouse landscape has given it the name Mar de Plástico (Sea of Plastic).
But what bothers me is that now, after awareness has grown these last years of the effect of the various plastics we assign to the environment by throwing out straws for example, won’t the waste from this enormous Sea of Plastic surely also contribute to environmental pollution? Well, so you might think, but apparently, the used greenhouse plastic that gets replaced every three years is bought up by recycling companies and is transformed into containers for freight as well as street signs, benches, trash cans, and park playground equipment called street furniture, and so on.
The safe and reliable agricultural produce shipped from this sustainable, intensive-farming Sea of Plastic has started reaching dining tables in the Middle East and over the sea in the US, not just Spain and every country in Europe. The Japanese are already familiar with bluefin tuna from Spain, but will cucumbers from Spanish greenhouses ever be used to garnish that tuna sashimi? I seriously wonder.