In Naples, A Clash Over Trash

  • Share
  • Read Later
Salvatore Laporta / AP

An anti-riot Italian carabinieri police officer stands in front of a mountain of rubbish in Terzigno, near Naples, southern Italy, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

In most cities, garbage collection is a discreet — almost invisible — service, making household waste disappear with only the rumble of a truck on trash day. But in the Italian city of Naples, it's right there on the streets for all to see.

Garbage, in Naples, has become a political issue, a topic of contention, and a recurring plague. And for much of the past week, it has spilled back into the public discourse, piling up on the city's sidewalks during a strike by garbage collectors, and exploding onto the streets during angry protests over a planned landfill on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The city has been suffering malodorous outbursts since 1994, when Italy declared a state of emergency after illegal dumping by the local mafia overflowed the region's landfills. Naples has struggled with the problem ever since. In 2007 and 2008, the city's travails sullied the entire nation's reputation, as reeking mountains of waste drove away tourist dollars ahead of a general election. Restoring order was among the first acts of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, which swept the city's trash into expedited landfills and a hastily constructed incinerator.

But in recent days, the issue has come bubbling back to the surface. The proposed opening of a large landfill inside the Mount Vesuvius National Park, just outside of Naples, has sparked violent protests. Locals obstructing trash deliveries to existing dumps have clashed repeatedly with riot police, and on Wednesday a group of masked men firebombed a garbage truck. The next morning, nearby communities staged a mock funeral for their towns. They shuttered shops and closed cafes to illustrate what they predict will happen to their communities as a result of the opening of the landfill, expected to be the largest in Europe. Thousands of demonstrators showed up in solidarity. "It won't be possible to live here anymore," said Gennaro Langella, mayor of Boscoreale, a small town about 15 miles southeast of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius' volcanic cone.

According to Langella — who at one point went on a four-day hunger strike in protest — a previously built landfill, less than 1,000 feet from his Community, has had a stifling impact. Restaurants have been forced to close. A local winery has had to put a cork in its operations. Property values have plummeted. "There are smells that are unbelievable," says Langella. "People wake up in the night with fits of vomiting. People have skin problems." Meanwhile, news of Naples' garbage crisis has seeped back into the national agenda. On Thursday, Berlusconi—under fire from his opposition—announced he would stage a repeat of his previous intervention, promising to visit the city to address the issue once again.

Blame for Naples' episodic waste outbreaks is attributed to everyone from incompetent administrators to corrupt politicians to self-interested businessmen. And in a part of the world where organized crime has a strong hold—the Naples-based Camorra is one of the country's largest criminal organizations— it's no surprise that many think the mob is involved. According to Angelo Genovese, a professor at the University of Naples who has studied the city's impact on Mount Vesuvius, Naples' packed urban center and relative affluence makes it the largest producer of garbage in the world per square meter. And yet, the infrastructure to deal with it doesn't exist. Even after Berlusconi's 2008 intervention, the city and surrounding areas have just one incinerator—running, say the Prime Minister's critics, at 30% capacity. "In Naples, it's very easy to create a garbage crisis," says Genovese.

Perhaps more to the point, it's very easy to exploit one. There's money in big projects like landfills and incinerators. And as officials greenlight emergency laws in a scramble to fix the problem, they weaken safety, health and environmental regulations—making it easier for unscrupulous businessmen or mobbed-up contractors to cut corners and push through controversial projects. "When the trash is piling up in the streets, the citizens accept any solution that's offered," says Genovese.

The problem, says Stefano Ciafani, scientific director of Legambiente, Italy's largest environmental group, is that Berlusconi's additional landfills and inefficient incinerator are not a solid fix. "The solution that was put in place wasn't a solution," Ciafani says. "It was only temporary." According to Legambiante, Naples' trash crisis will only pass when the city gets serious about recycling what it can, incinerating most of the rest, and burying only what is necessary. New landfills like the one planned for the Mount Vesuvius National Park will only kick the can down the road. "Landfills fill up quickly," says Ciafani. "It would solve the problem for a year or two, and then we'd be back once again where we started"—with the streets covered in garbage and the city talking nothing but trash.