Plastic-free holidays: Majorca’s fight against trash

Plastic waste on a beach promenade in Palma, Majorca.

Majorca in late autumn. The sky is blue, it’s 20 degrees, and Majorcans are enjoying their island without the mass tourism of summer. They’re lying on the beach in the sun near the capital, Palma, kids playing, couples holding hands and walking along the shoreline.

It seems quite idyllic. But a second look reveals bits of plastic and trash everywhere, stuck between shells and seaweed. Cups, tins, bottle caps and other barely identifiable pieces of plastic protrude from the sand, and even the palm-lined promenade is littered with trash piles.

These are the remnants of the past summer season and its mass tourism and mega consumerism, long after most visitors have left. At the recent UN climate conference in Madrid, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of a “war against nature.” On the Balearic islands, this is already a bitter reality.

A new law on waste, to be passed by the Balearic parliament at the beginning of the year, is meant to reduce the amount of trash drastically. The ambitious and strict legislative project aims at reducing rubbish by 10 per cent by 2021 (compared to 2020 levels) and by 20 per cent by 2030.

“The law is more ambitious than the one envisaged by the Spanish state,” says Sebastian Sanso, director of waste management in the Balearic Environmental Ministry.

“Islands are much more fragile than the mainland. We have more trash here every day, and producers don’t think about how to recycle it all.” Tourism plays a huge role, he adds. The law targets especially polluting substances and disposable packaging. 

This affects, for example, coffee capsules, drinking straws, cotton swabs, lighters, razor blades and ink cartridges that are made from environmentally harmful materials or are designed for single use.

A project called Futouris concretely aims at preventing plastic waste in the tourism industry, especially in the hotel business. So far, 10 participating hotels and chains, as well as tour operators and local NGOs, have developed pilot policies to be tested in the coming season.

“Some policies – like only giving out straws if people ask for them, no plastic cups in the pool area, large soap dispensers instead of small containers in the bathroom or avoiding packaging at the breakfast buffet – are already in place,” says Futouris project manager Swantje Lehners, praising the commitment of many hotel operators in Majorca and Ibiza.

One of them is hotel chain Iberostar with its headquarters in Palma, which has enshrined reducing plastic waste in its company goals. In the next year, every hotel belonging to the group will completely eliminate single-use plastic packaging, the company writes on its website. Iberostar has also pledged to buy fish and seafood only from sustainable fisheries and raise awareness of the need to protect the oceans.

The charity Save the Med is among the organizations concerned with the sea and beaches of the Balearics, and has coordinated with the regional government on the new law. It promotes the purchase of unpackaged goods in large quantities and the development of reusable goods, among other things, says programme coordinator Tupa Rangel Cardenas. “We believe these are the right steps to reach the goal of a zero-waste society,” she adds.

But what do the guests say about the efforts? “More and more tourists are catching on to the subject. Surveys show that for most travellers it’s important to protect the environment of their holiday country,” says Lehners. Most German guests, for example, say they don’t need the plastic-wrapped equipment most hotels offer – shoe cleaning kits, shower caps or toothbrushes – because they bring their own from home.

But for now, the garbage is still poking out from the sand. “The beaches are full of trash, especially near Palma,” says Cardenas. In winter the beaches are cleaned, but not regularly. “All countries of the Mediterranean are also connected by water, so the trash on Majorca’s beaches does not have to come from Majorca.”

The expert is nevertheless confident the new law will be effective, and beaches will be cleaner in the future. But not immediately – according to marine biologists it could take up to 20 years for changes to become visible.

That’s why Sanso appeals to travellers to be more responsible and help with implementing the new law – ultimately, everybody wants to spend their vacation on a clean beach. “It’s much better to take a plastic bottle home from the beach than to bring a new one,” says the politician.