Four years ago, Enzo Suma was walking along the beach near his home when he discovered a discarded bottle of suntan lotion that would change his life. The naturalist, who is now 40, lives in Puglia, a region in southern Italy whose long coastline faces the Adriatic Sea. Floating waste accumulates in this relatively enclosed part of the Mediterranean, unlike the open ocean, where it tends to be dispersed over a vast area. An avid kitesurfer, Suma made it a habit to pick up the refuse that washed up along the shore, especially after big winter storms.
Suma noticed a curious detail on the bottle of Ambra Solare he picked up that day: the price, clearly printed on the bottom, was in lire, a currency that hadn’t been used in Italy since it was replace by the Euro in 2001. Could a plastic container have survived intact in the Mediterranean, he wondered, for almost two decades?
The bottle turned out to be a lot older than that. After doing research on the internet, Suma found an ad on eBay that proved the bottle must have been manufactured between 1968 and 1970. It would become the first artifact in Archeoplastica, a collection of 500 unique pieces, all recovered from Italian shores, which demonstrates the unsettling durability of plastic waste in the environment. Suma also displays selected items from his collection in public, most recently at National Geographic’s “Planet or Plastic?” exhibition in the Teatro Margherita, a seaside museum in Bari.
“We were all told in school that plastic can last for five hundred years,” says Suma. (In fact, it is estimated that polystyrene containers only degrade after 800 years, and some plastic bottles may endure for over a millennium.) “But to see a product you may have used 30, 40, or 50 years ago with your own eyes, still completely intact, that’s different. It has an emotional impact.”
Suma also exhibits selected pieces from the Archeoplastica collection at local schools around his hometown of Ostuni. “For many children, these pieces are as old as their parents, or grandparents. They’re more like archaeological remains than garbage.”
“The less beautiful side of things”
Suma, who studied environmental science at the University of Venice, uses his photographic skills to create digital three-dimensional models of each plastic object, similar to how museums document ancient Greek and Roman vases. Sixty of these models can now be viewed in the virtual Archeoplastica museum, which also features vintage print and television ads. The oldest object in the collection is a bottle cap which Suma from 1958, stamped with the logo “Moplen,” the patented polymer whose introduction marked the beginning of the plastic age. Its invention won Italian chemical engineer Giulio Natta the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963.
Dating the plastic objects, which are often faded by exposure to sunlight or encrusted with barnacles, can be a challenge. Sometimes Suma gets lucky, like the bag of potato chips printed with the expiry date November 1983, or a deflated soccer ball with the logo of the 1990 World Cup. The presence of a bar code means an object was manufactured after the mid-1980s; printing directly on plastic suggests it was made in the 1970s or earlier, before glued-on labels became common. (Labels quickly detach from the bottles in seawater, becoming a source of microplastics which absorb toxins and can be swallowed by marine animals.) When Suma’s fails to identify an object with detective work on the internet, he turns to his 300,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram.
This was the case with the sinister-looking “Il Gobbo” (“the hunchback”), a bluish-white bottle shaped like a man dressed in a frockcoat, with a prominent hunch on its back. “A woman from northern Italy contacted me, saying that she had one, which her grandparents had won at a local fair. But hers was yellow.” A collector in France sent him photos of the bottle of a brand of soap from the 1960s labelled “Soaky Bubble,” but it wasn’t exactly the same. The presence of a slot in the head makes Suma suspect it may have been a piggy bank. “But I’m not one hundred percent sure. Il Gobbo remains a mystery.”
Suma’s obsessive attention to such details is his way of grappling with problems that affect him on a deep level. As a guide to Puglia’s centuries-old olive trees and coastal dunes, he is especially sensitive to the impact of human activity on the environment. He volunteers to protect the habitat of endangered beach-nesting shorebirds, and helps rescue marine turtles, which can get tangled in plastic waste.
“The playful side of the work allows you to arrive at the less beautiful side of things,” he acknowledges. The amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans, up to 12.7 million metric tons every year, is enough to cover every foot of coastline in the world with five grocery bags full of garbage; it is estimated that by 2050, the plastic waste in the oceans will outweigh all the fish on earth. The Mediterranean now some of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world, and Suma worries that thanks to seafood-heavy diets, they are ending up in people’s bodies.
“I’m not trying to demonize plastic,” insists Suma. “It’s a very useful substance. But it’s unthinkable that a water bottle, made from a material designed to last so long, can be used for just a few days—or even minutes—before becoming garbage.
“It’s important to work on several levels at the same time,” the Archeoplastica curator adds. “Clean the beaches. Clean the oceans. Recycle. But if we are still throwing out plastic, none of those are going to be long-term solutions.”