No one really wants their city to live up to their bad reputation. However, Rome is not an exception when fulfilling their long-known stereotypes. Though I wish I was, I am not talking about the fashionable streets, the lousy music, and the delicious food (not that they aren’t fulfilled either) but about the trash crisis. Overflowing dumpsters, wild boars attracted by the trash, rats, and seagulls hanging in the accumulating garbage bags, all of these in the main roads for everyone to see every single day. While it probably isn’t what you expect to see when visiting Rome, it is a reality that shocks the majority of tourists, despite the fact that we have long heard about the garbage crisis that has almost become the trademark of this city. Chances are that if you have ever visited Rome you have come across uncollected trash all over the city. You’ll wonder, how did this happen? Here is everything you need to know.
How did one of the greatest, most famous cities become a literal dump?
The story of Rome’s trash mismanagement actually began many decades ago. Back in the day, the Malagrotta landfill was the only site where you could dispose of your garbage, nicknamed the “big black hole”, it remained as the only garbage disposal available for over 30 years, until was closed in 2013.
The owner of this land was known as “Il Supremo”, and since it was the only place where you could dispose of the trash, he had a monopoly held over the trash removal industry in the capital. After stricter regulations were set by the European Union, it was determined the big black hole was unfit to be Rome’s garbage removal center and was therefore closed. So, one would think they found a landfill that was fit, right? Well, not exactly.
Ever since 2013 Rome has not had a site (not a bog official one, at least) in which they can dump or treat the millions of metric tons of trash they produce every year. The city is also not really engaged in the recycling culture, and different parties who have tried have not been able to solve the issue.
How did the authorities manage it?
All the garbage disposal system (collection, treatment, and disposal) had always been in the hands of a small group that held interests of their own, and often colluding with the organized crime.
The way it occurred to the authorities to manage this was to export the trash out of Rome and to other regions, where it can be processed. Less than 40% of the trash produced every year is actually collected to be recycled and processed. In reality, the capital exports over 1.2 million tons of trash every year, which has come to be a great cost for the government, and also giving Romans one of the highest municipal-waste taxes. The remaining trash, sadly, is getting accumulated on the streets of the Eternal City, and can stay there for months.
In 2016, the new mayor had a campaign that promised to solve the issue. The now major, Virginia Raggi won with over 67% of the popular vote and is the first female major that has ever governed Rome. However, she has already been in power for almost three years and her campaign promises are long from being fulfilled. While there are a lot of citizens that are just used to the city being full of trash today, the other part, a big majority, is outraged by how the city has turned into a dump and has actually protested the issue more than once now.
On December 2018, there was a huge fire at one of the few remaining sites to dispose of the garbage, the Salario plant. Being filled with trash, the burning covered the northeast of the city in a cloud of toxic smoke. Not only that but the Slalrio plant treated about one-fourth of the garbage generated, and it ended up being out of order. This forced politicians to look at alternative facilities, but while they did this, Rome streets were filling with wrapping paper, as it was the holiday season.
Ever since Christmas eve, no one solved the issue of where to send one-fourth of Rome’s trash, so the garbage began to pile up on the streets, shocking the tourists and everyone who came across them on social media. Some residents even began to set it on fire to protest the fact.
Failing and Impossible solutions
After the fire, Sergio Costa created a strategy to tackle the issue. First, the roman police began an investigation on the causes of the fire (arson and sabotage being a possibility). In the middle of the crisis, the major Raggi also intervened by reaching out to other regions and asking for them to let the city dispose of their garbage [Rome’s garbage] in their landfills. After the crisis passed a bit, Raggi and her party established that they are pursuing a plan that involves zero waste and circular economy.
After the Malagrotta closed, many landfills have been proposed to dispose of the waste, yet not one became operational since they were all strongly opposed by nearby residents and local mayors. This has forced the authorities to think outside their comfort zone and use more creative action plans. Raggi, for example, planned to gradually expand the waste collection to the whole city, the main objective was that 70% of the collected trash was recycled by 2021. However, though it has increased, it has only been around 4-5%, so obviously, the 70% objective seems unreachable now.
AMA is the city-owned company in charge of collecting Rome’s garbage. Earlier this year, the head of the company stated Rome was going to become a role model for waste management. The company (which is in serious debt) has the intention of opening 13 new facilities, three of which are to be specialized in recycling organic disposal. If this system is indeed implemented, it should be processing around 880,000 tons of waste every year.
On another point of view, environmental experts have stated that the issue doesn’t only lie on mismanagement, but on the population, itself. The north of the city is farther sighted and has begun to use their trash in order to create clean energy. They concluded all the mentioned above plans are good on paper but have not specific plans to be executed.
What is likely to happen is that Rome will keep on exporting the garbage, despite the high costs. In the meantime, the streets of Rome remain filled with trash in what is being called “Rome’s trash crisis”.