Why is Rome so dirty?

Has Mayor Gualtieri found the silver bullet for Rome’s never-ending rubbish crisis or is the planned €700 million incinerator just a quick fix?

Rome’s waste crisis is hard to miss, but its causes are far from obvious.

Just metres away from the Roman Forum, the charmed alleyways of the fashionable Monti neighbourhood are often littered with fermenting pizza boxes, cigarette packets and plastic bottles.

In the early mornings, apartment doorways and shop fronts are stuffed with rubbish from the night before. Local residents and Airbnb guests struggle to find dumpsters for their sacks of rubbish after many of them were removed by the city council early this year.

The situation hints at Rome’s catastrophic waste crisis – a battle which has been played out along administrative and political lines for the last decade.

Mark of shame

The crisis has long been a source of unrelenting ire for the city’s inhabitants, as well as a mark of shame for local authorities.

Last year, Roberto Gualtieri, of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), put Rome’s waste troubles at the centre of his run to be mayor of Rome. He promised to clean the city by Christmas as well as hire an army of new workers and lobby the government for additional funds to make it happen.

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But just over a year in office, Guartieri’s plans to clean and regenerate Rome are still barely visible. The mayor admits he underestimated the scale of Rome’s rubbish troubles. In early November, he addressed a packed crowd at the Auditorium at Parco Della Musica in Rome to mark his first year in office. “The city is cleaner but not as clean as it should be,” he said.

His new plan is to push ahead with a controversial waste-to-energy incinerator in the south of Rome, capable of burning over a third of the city’s current total annual waste. The plant is hailed by many as a silver bullet for Rome’s rubbish crisis. It will hopefully wean the city off its toxic dependency on landfills, and produce energy for people’s homes with relatively little environmental pollution.

Yet the incinerator is a political lightning rod.

Last July, it was the catalyst for the insurrection that brought down the Mario Draghi government. It was fiercely opposed by the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), as well as members of Gualtieri’s own political party in the PD, chief among them Nicola Zingaretti, the outgoing regional president of the Lazio region. Even Gualtieri himself has not always been wholly convinced of the need for such a plant.

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Nevertheless, with the 2025 Jubilee Year around the corner and a bid to host 2030 Expo still pending, the mayor is under increasing pressure to do something bold to sort out the rubbish problem. Rome needs to show it can be at its best: efficient, welcoming and clean.

Gualtieri is confident that the €700 million incinerator, on which construction is set to begin next year, will prove a good return on investment.

However Rome’s rubbish issues are deep and complex.

Many warn Gualtieri could still find himself fighting a losing battle against Rome’s rubbish-strewn and littered streets.

Luigi Piga, professor of raw material engineering at the Sapienza University in Rome, has spent years researching the problems of waste management. He believes that the need for the new incinerator – while a good and safe initiative in the long run – is overshadowed by the question of recycling – or lack of it in Rome’s case.

“Without an adequate culture of recycling in the city the incinerator will be an inefficient solution…it is vital to reduce waste and recycle first and burn only what is not recoverable,” Piga says.

Rome recycles a meagre 43 per cent of its total waste, considerably less than the national average of 63 per cent. Smaller cities in the north, like Treviso, have pushed that fraction up to four-fifths.

Recycling culture

Critics of the new incinerator – like Zingaretti and Gualtieri’s predecessor as mayor Virginia Raggi of the M5S – argue that the plant disincentivises a recycling culture in the city and will merely kick the waste crisis down the road.

The reason for Rome’s poor recycling culture is partly because AMA, Rome’s calcified municipal environmental agency responsible for rubbish collection, has been slow off the mark. The company has been notoriously badly managed, changing chief executive officers five times in seven years, and has failed to allocate sufficient resources to build a citywide recycling infrastructure.

“The culture at AMA is still that of street sweepers and rubbish collectors, not recyclers,” says Piga, “That has to change.”

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Without a better circular economy, AMA has been unable to keep on top of the colossal 2,700 tonnes of non-recyclable rubbish produced by the city every day – all of which needs to be treated and sorted before being sent to landfills.

AMA has become increasingly dependent on private companies and individuals to shoulder this burden, as well as waste operators as far afield as Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. And leaning on the private sector in this way, especially those operating in the notoriously shadowy world of Italian waste management, brings its own unique challenges.

Malagrotta

This summer, thousands of plastic bags, tyres and boxes burned for days at a privately-owned processing plant in Malagrotta in the west of Rome, enveloping the capital in a cloud of choking, acrid smoke.

Malagrotta was once Europe’s largest landfill. It was closed in 2013 for failing to contain its toxic waste. However, before the fire, part of the site was still being used by AMA for processing non-recyclable rubbish.

The fire brought much of the city’s waste processing to a standstill, transforming the disastrous disposal problem into an emergency. AMA’s trucks had nowhere to drop off their refuse, resulting in serious bottlenecks and rubbish being left on the streets.

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The fire at Malagrotta was not an isolated incident. Other blazes broke out in a number of waste treatment plants around the city this year, raising the spectre of arson and organised crime. Whether man-made or not, the fires highlight AMA’s thorny reliance on private companies and privateers, many of whom know when to exploit their power, especially during crises, to demand higher rents and hold the city to ransom.

Meanwhile, the decade-long rubbish crisis has fractured the fragile relationship between citizens and their institutions. Years of jumping from one environmental crisis to another has created a reluctance for people to take personal responsibility for poor waste disposal habits in the city. Many Romans are quick to blame the mountains of rubbish on AMA but do little to change their own behaviour.

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However local associations in Rome are fighting to change that. Paola Carra is the co-founder of Retake Roma, a grassroots initiative that fights against the decay of public spaces by organising clean-up days throughout the capital.

Carra advocates for all citizens to play a more active role in cleaning up the city: “AMA can not solve everything,” she says, “so we push for a soft revolution to change citizens’ attitudes and show them what’s possible and what a clean city could look like,” she says.

In September, 500 Retake Roma volunteers met in Parco Caffarella, near the Appia Antica, where they removed one whole tonne of rubbish from the park, from old shoes to mattresses; they even unblocked the famously polluted Almone river.

Civic responsibility

Through its work Retake Roma is helping spread a sense of civic responsibility. This Thursday – 24 November – Retake will be collaborating with the Institute of Child Neuropsychiatry Giovanni Bollea in the S. Lorenzo district. Together with the young patients and doctors, their volunteers will spend the morning cleaning up the streets near the hospital, painting the walls and restoring some dignity to the dilapidated institute.

Gualtieri is moving ahead with his new incinerator but he may find it takes much longer to rebuild the faith and goodwill of Rome residents. However thanks to associations like Retake Roma, some pride and hope is already being restored to the city’s streets.

By Charles Seymour

Photo: MZeta / Shutterstock. com