When we asked recently what Italy is doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its coastline, one reader in Sicily wrote to tell us the answer, sadly, is “very little.”
But as she explains, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
American teacher Sandra Ravi moved to the Sicilian coast last year and, shocked by the pollution she found on the island’s beaches, decided to do something about it herself.
“I have never regarded myself as an environmentalist,” she says, “but I can see that we must do something now.”
The wide sandy beach of Capo D’Orlando, in the province of Messina, Sicily, stretches for some ten kilometres – and, Sandra discovered, is often covered in all kinds of trash and debris
“I was shocked. My daily long walks on the beach became clean-up sessions,” she says.
Now, every day, Sandra walks along the beach picking up rubbish – much to the surprise of other local residents.
“The beach is visible from the lungomare and the coast road runs alongside it,” she says, “this means people can see you when you are on the beach picking up litter. I’ve had people ask me all sorts of questions in a very puzzled tone: “Are you getting paid to do that?” “Why are you picking it up if you didn’t put it there?”
She describes finding the beach littered with household items like disposable razors and toilet brushes, as well as plastic bottles, cups and plates, broken beach umbrellas, deckchairs and toys.
She finds everything from discarded fishing equipment to shoes, needles and syringes, electric cables, and even old fridges or boilers lying on the beach.
“It’s not difficult to tell the origins of all this. Some gets washed down the toilet, some gets thrown into the sea from boats and some is left on the beach,” she says.
Rubbish dumped by the beach in Capo D’Orlando. Photo: Sandro Ravi
She first noticed the rubbish washed up on the beach after the big storms, or mareggiata, common in the area in autumn and winter.
But in summer, she points out, there are no such storms and instead the rubbish has invariably been dumped by beachgoers.
“People think all this plastic rubbish washes ashore from elsewhere. They don’t see that it’s the people that throw anything and everything in the sea or leave it on the beach in the first place,” she says.
Sandra on her local beach. Photo: Sandro Ravi
“I see people leaving their rubbish behind on the beach every day. It’s a stab in the back each time I pick up a pizza box or a plastic bottle.”
“People think it’s always someone else’s fault,” she says.
And though passers-by are curious about her litter-picking, she says few want to help out.
“We organised a beach clean-up back in April during Earth Day, which attracted just about ten people,” she adds. Half of those who attended, she notes, were African migrants.
Local authorites and environmental groups haven’t helped either, she says.
“We’ve asked the town hall to monitor the beaches and prevent the bins from becoming heaps of endless bags filled with plastic bottles, food and plastic plates. We got an answer this time on Facebook saying they will act soon.”
Sandra may not be able to stop people dumping their rubbish, but she says being confronted with the mess on the beach every day has opened her eyes.
“My shopping habits have changed, and I’ve become aware of how much rubbish we produce.”
Despite the frustrations, she says her daily walks remain “a wonderful experience, knowing I’m doing something to help clean up this plastic mess.”
She remains hopeful that more and more people are waking up to the scale of the problem and starting to take action.
“I’ve noticed how, slowly, a few people in town are now picking up litter, and posting about it on Facebook,” she says.
“Every little gesture counts. What I mean is picking up a plastic bottle if you see one on the beach. Next time you go for a stroll take a plastic bag and collect any plastics you find.”
“It doesn’t take much to start being proactive.”