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How Italy’s foreign residents are fighting the growing problem with beach pollution

Garbage on the street corner in Sicily, Italy.
Some foreign nationals are taking action where they live in Italy to turn the tide on rubbish. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
As studies show environmental damage is on the rise on Italy's coastline, some of The Local's readers are taking action to make their area cleaner and safer. Here's how you can get involved too.

There are over 400 pieces of rubbish on every 100-metre stretch of Italy’s coastline, according to a recent report on the state of the country’s beaches.

It sounds a lot, because by European standards it is.

Less than 20 pieces of marine litter per 100 metres of coastline would be considered a beach in ‘good environmental condition’, according to the threshold set at European level.

Reaching that level in Italy is an “ambitious goal”, according to Italy’s Environmental Research Institute (ISPRA), especially as Europe’s Mediterranean countries see markedly higher concentrations of beach litter than other parts of the continent.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its beaches?

The most recent data, from the three-year period between 2015-2017, found the median of total marine litter on Italian coasts was 415 pieces of trash per 100 metres.

A beach clean with plastic waste.
Volunteers pick up plastic waste from the beach. Photo: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

According to their findings, a staggering 559 objects were found every 100m in the Adriatic Sea, 421 objects per 100m in the western Mediterranean and 271 objects per 100m in the Ionian Sea.

The scale of damage to the beaches in 2021 has not yet been measured, although for those living in Italy, the devastation is clear to see.

What are the authorities doing about the mess?

At a national level, the Italian government is taking some steps to clean up its seas, partially approving the so-called ‘Salvamare‘ law in July after years of discussion.

If the bill is passed into law, it would allow fishermen to take plastic recovered from nets ashore and have it recycled.

Right now, fishermen are forced to throw any plastic rubbish they catch back into the sea, because current legislation dictates that bringing it on land is a criminal offence.

Other environmental measures taken at a local and regional level remain patchy, with some authorities seemingly doing a lot more than others.

While climate campaigners and activists are growing in number in Italy, change is increasingly coming from ordinary residents who continue to pick up rubbish and gather to put pressure on the government.

How residents are making a difference

Sandra Ravi is an American teacher who is now resident in Sicily and spent most of her childhood on the island.

Shocked at the amount of rubbish on the coastline, and seeing the situation getting gradually worse, Ravi decided to start cleaning her local beach every day.

“It takes my breath away. I feel a burden on my chest,” she told us when describing the litter-strewn beaches around her home.

Rubbish, plastic and fishing nets on the beach.
All kinds of waste end up on Italy’s beaches. Photo: John Cameron on Unsplash

Ravi has had mixed responses to her clean-ups, with some residents saying she is “a wonderful person who’s doing an amazing job”.

Strangers even stop me in the street and give me baskets full of oranges and fresh eggs,” she added.

But others don’t understand why she would bother to try to make a difference.

READ ALSO: More than 40 percent of Italian coastline is polluted

“I had a group of cyclists one day shout at me, ‘Look at the mad woman who is always out cleaning!'” Ravi added.

She’s not alone in her eco-activism, however, as more and more organisations are galvanising to turn the tide on plastic and waste along Italy’s coastline.

How can you get involved?

Environmental group Plastic Free organise beach cleans nationwide to bring volunteers together to remove the trash that has blown or washed up on Italy’s shores.

September was a pivotal month in their campaign, which saw over 18,000 volunteers meet up across 300 locations on one day.

People gathered to collect rubbish and remove harmful waste, with the organisation marking a record haul of 243,721 kg of plastic and rubbish in one day.

British national Jeremy Bowling and his wife joined in with the national clean-up on September 26th in Spechiolla, Puglia.

He described the day as an “excellent atmosphere”, in which he saw familiar faces and made new friends, helping to collect some 100 bags of rubbish on their local beach that day.

Bowling said there was a mixed bag of items recovered, including masks, abandoned tents and plastic netting.

Despite the garbage recorded on Italy’s beaches, he said “things have massively improved in the 14 years we have been here”.

He noted that his local comune (town council) of Brindisi in the southern region of Puglia is efficient with recycling, even if there is a lot of fly-tipping in the area.

Plastic Free is constantly on the lookout for helpers, continuing their clean-ups throughout the year. Photos from their latest event showed how much difference just a group of 20 people can make.

To find your nearest cleanup event, see the calendar here.

Plastic Free also post call-outs on their Facebook page – and if you’re a qualified diver, you could join in with their underwater clean-ups too.

The group hold clean-ups in Ravi’s hometown of Capo d’Orlando, where she autonomously cleans up daily.

She said these initiatives help “a little”, but that’s only speaking for her area.

“The amount of rubbish and plastic washed up on shore after every storm is huge and a group of six people can only cover a small area. Usually no more than 10 take part,” she said.

She said organised beach cleans take place twice a year on her five-kilometre stretch of beach, and with not many people joining in, it’s not enough.

“They are worth it, but they need to become regular,” she said.

Ravi said environmental associations such as Legambiente “used to be very active” in the area but noted their lack of action recently.

Ultimately, she said, we are all to blame for the crisis we now face, “every single one of us”.

“For me it has become a hobby, a passion, a mission, a new way of exercising and I clean every day,” she said.

“I travel for work and I do not live here in Sicily all year round, and the mess I find when I come back is beyond words.”


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