Most beaches in Italy are distinctly Mediterranean, featuring darker water and rocky cliffs, but on the western coast of the country there lies a stretch of white sand alongside a bright hue of turquoise water. Unlike most of the Italian coastline, this idyllic beach appears to perfectly resemble that of a pristine Caribbean resort—that is, with the exception of the giant smokestacks looming behind it.
You’d expect that this tropical haven of white sand, known as Spiagge Bianche, or “White Beaches,” would be a popular hotspot for tourists, but the beach is unlikely to be found in most Italian guidebooks and travel websites. That’s because the white sand and light blue water of Spiagge Bianche are artificially created, and unintentionally so.
Easily visible to beachgoers at Spiagge Bianche is an expansive factory run by chemical company Solvay that manufactures sodium carbonate, which is used in glass, detergent, and soap. To make the chemical, the Solvay plant discharges thousands of tons of toxic wastewater every year into the Mediterranean Sea. This discharge contains a mixture of limestone and calcium chloride, which tints the water light blue and gives the sand its dazzling white color.
Although the water and sand may look clean, Spiagge Bianche has been listed by the United Nations as one of the 15 most polluted areas on the Mediterranean coast. In addition to limestone and calcium chloride, the Solvay plant’s wastewater also contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead, which have reportedly increased mortality rates in the adjacent town of Rosignano. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of sunbathers and kite surfers at the beach are locals.
Unfortunately, there are no signs at Spiagge Bianche warning beachgoers about the dangers of the deceiving white sand, and activists have had little success in getting Solvay to regulate its chemical wastewater.