Thirteen Million Plastic Bottles: Venice Awash

By Peter Coates

Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti

Image 1: Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, home of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, overlooking the Grand Canal, next to Ponte dell’Accademia, location of Waterscapes conference. (Photo: Peter Coates)

While Marianna was engaged in watery pursuits and contemplating plastic encased water in Bali, I was in Venice, the ultimate European water city, at a conference on Waterscapes as Cultural Heritage (Georgina Endfield and Carry Van Lieshout also participated with a talk on their Derbyshire sough research). The day I gave a paper about the restoration of the Tyne’s salmonscape an article entitled ‘The Death of Venice’ appeared in the Independent.

The article focused on the impact on the ever-dwindling numbers of Venetians of remorselessly increasing tourist numbers, rising rental and property prices and local politicians dipping into the cookie jar of cash earmarked for improvement of the city’s defences against the rising waters that, according to some experts, will completely submerge the city by the end of this century. [1]

Cruise ships

Image 2: Poster on Strada Nova depicts protestors who took to the waters of the Grand Canal in September 2013 to register their opposition to cruise ships. Over the past fifteen years, the number of cruise ships visiting Venice has increased five-fold (Photo: Peter Coates)

Tourism in Venice these days is a far cry from the gentility of the Grand Tour that brought the likes of Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Overwhelmed Venice currently receives 20 million visitors a year. The aforementioned article did not address the environmental problems associated with such staggering quantities of visitors. The erosive backwash – Venetians call this phenomenon moto ondoso (the motion of the waves) – of the staggering quantity of motorized boats, supersized, large and small, plying the city’s waters are just one of these problems. [2] (The aesthetic horror of the gargantuan cruise ships that block out the sky and obliterate the views is another matter.)

Bottles on beach

Image 3: Bottles on the beach near San Pietro di Castello waterbus stop (Photo: Peter Coates)

The most visible environmental problem, though, is that the 20 million visitors leave behind 13 million empty plastic bottles [3]. These bottles bob up and down in almost every canal and, wherever there are stretches of inaccessible pebbly shores rather than quayside facing the lagoon, fetch up and accumulate in small hills.

Rubbish bins, where they are provided, overflow with plastic bottles and even those properly disposed of on terra firma create an enormous and enormously expensive waste disposal headache for the local municipality – a problem of Balinese proportions.

Dog and fountain

Image 4: Dog refreshment (Photo: Peter Coates)

And yet, there is plenty of water on tap in Venice – and it’s free. Back in 2008, the local authorities launched a campaign to encourage the use of the public water fountains dotted around the city. [4] The water is in fact potable (unlike in Bali), but the fountains are dilapidated and there are no signs to reassure passers-by that the water is not only safe but good to drink. The only use of fountain water that I observed during my recent visit was made by a local dog owner to cool off a thick-coated Labrador during the mini-heat wave that had struck the city. In fact, local inhabitants are not much better than tourists in this regard: Italians consume more bottled water than any other Europeans, and are second in the world after Mexico. [5]

Venice’s Biennale International Art Exhibition opened for its 56th show a few days before my visit. This year’s show has drawn fire from art critics for its highly politicized content (‘There an awful lot of fretting about the state of the world’; ‘art for the planet’s sake’). [6] But for

UK art

Image 5: ‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’ (Photo: Peter Coates)

me, this urgency was an attraction. A collateral event by the New Art Exchange (East Midlands, UK, supported by Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities), featured a bright green Astroturf mini-version of the United Kingdom bobbing up and down in the insalubrious bankside waters of a canal near the former naval shipyard, the Arsenale. This is one of the nine ‘holes’ of a fully playable mini golf course (‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’), each of which has been designed by a different artist. And you try to hit the red ball onto the dry land of the UK. The artist responsible for this final hole, Ellie Harrison, aims to inject a serious message about climate change and environmental refugees into this crazy activity. She speculates that ‘the UK as an island state is likely to remain temperate as global temperatures continue to rise and many parts of the world become uninhabitable. The indirect impact of this on the UK could be a massive influx of “climate refugees”, making the current backlash and animosity towards immigrants we are currently witnessing in Europe seem trivial’. [7] Landing safely on UK territory clearly wasn’t that easy. When I was there, most of the balls were bobbing around in the water, and, eventually, one of the staff went over to fish them out with a net.

It’s a pity that nobody in Venice is employed to fish out the plastic bottles. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine this cut-out model of the UK – or Venice itself – drowning under the groaning weight of plastic water bottles.



[1] Winston Ross, ‘The Death of Venice: Corrupt officials, mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city’, The Independent, 14 May 2015.

[2] Chris Catanese, et al., Floating around Venice: Developing Mobility Management Tools and Methodologies in Venice (Worcester, MA.: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 21 October 2008), 5.

[3] ‘Venice sinking under weight of 13 million plastic bottles’, 4 October 2010,

[4] John Hooper, ‘Venice urges tourists to drink from water fountains’, The Guardian, 4 June 2008.

[5] On our fixation with bottled water, see Andy Opel, ‘Constructing purity: Bottled water and the commodification of nature’, Journal of American Culture 22/4 (Winter 1999): 67-75; Catherine Ferrier, ‘Bottled water: Understanding a social phenomenon’, Ambio, 30/2 (March 2001): 118-19; Peter Gelick, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010).

[6] Laura Cumming, ‘56th Venice Biennale review – more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure’, The Observer, 10 May 2015; Roberta Smith, ‘Review: Art for the planet’s sake at the Venice Biennale’, The New York Times, 15 May 2015.



  • Marcus Hall

    Please see Massimo Cacciari’s plea for tap water:
    Venice sinks deeper as our thirst gets stronger. I suggest that the caps be put on all those empty plastic bottles, then lashed together and to the city, in a giant circular floating life preserver, so that Venice can finally be saved from the high waters.

  • Leona Skelton

    Excellent blog Peter. The question is how would we ever manage to produce sufficient bottled water for the environmental refugees?! I have long been commenting on the lengths to which people will go to guarantee their access to a sealed plastic bottle of water, which is often perceived as super safe to drink. I’ve seen people queue for bottled water in a cafe right next to an accessible waterfall, I’ve witnessed totally skint work colleagues spend their last quid on a bottle of water in an open plan office complete with a kitchen, sink and fridge and I’m more than used to looks of obvious horror when I reveal that the water I carry with me, while it might be in a reused plastic bottle, was drawn from my own kitchen tap. In Gateshead, where I grew up, we called kitchen sink water ‘council pop’, which perhaps contributed to its negative connotations. I’ve often had to rely on spring water on long hill walks. I carry two litres, but that’s not always enough. The first time I climbed Ben Nevis, I had to drink stream water, but one of my fellow climbers refused to drink it for fear of rotting sheep corpses upstream and she was in quite a severe state of dehydration by the time we got off the mountain 6 hours after having run out of water. To my astonishment, she ran straight into the shop in the visitor centre and came out with nothing other than three bottles of ‘Highland Spring’ water!!! I sighed…

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