The Eternal City’s dirty secret

ROME – From open-air museum to open-air tip, the Eternal City produces more garbage than it can cope with. Trash bags spew from overflowing bins onto footpaths, where they're left to rot, giving off a putrid stench in the endless summer heat. All of this has doctors in fear of a looming medical emergency. Romans pay a high tax on waste collection – one of the highest in Italy – so why then, many are asking, is their beloved city resembling a third world country.

 “Under my house there is a mountain of trash and nobody could care less,” says Vanessa Rita, a resident living near Tiburtina station. “Often there are rats or other creatures scavenging through the rubbish - the smell on the streets is terrible.”

 Since the closure of Malagrotta’s 240-hectare landfill site – the largest in Europe – Rome has struggled to find alternative dumping grounds for the city’s waste. Owned by Roman “King of Rubbish,” Manlio Cerroni, Malagrotta was closed in October 2013, after it was deemed unfit to treat waste. It was in that moment that the Eternal City could no longer sweep it’s trash under the carpet, simply because the carpet was no longer there.

  To understand how Rome’s trash turned into the waste emergency we’re experiencing today, one must understand the three main phases of the waste cycle: collection, treatment and disposal. The first is the responsibility of the municipalities, the second of the companies authorized by the waste disposal plan of the Lazio region. Between phases one and two – collection and treatment – there may be an intermediate one: “transhipment,” where the waste sits in limbo if treatment plants are full. The closure of Malagrotta put an end to the final step: disposal.

 Other existing landfill sites and incinerators in Lazio were too small and unable to cope with the 4,700 tons of daily garbage produced by Romans. This is where the regions of Abruzzo, Veneto, Apulia, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and even Austria, Germany and Portugal stepped in, disposing – at a high price – the waste produced by Rome’s MBT (mechanical biological treatment) facility. A roughly 50 million-euro annual blow that has led to Romans paying Italy’s highest waste tax.

 In a five-year period of highs and lows, former mayor Gianni Alemanno can be credited with introducing separate waste collection in Rome. Inherited from Ignazio Marino at 31%, recycling increased to 41%, reducing the daily tons to be disposed of to 3,000 but it did not prevent the so-called ‘space cadet’ – in what was claimed to be his two and a half years of mediocre rule – from finding himself in a city full of garbage bags in alternating phases, just as we’re experiencing today under current mayor Virginia Raggi.

 According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, the reason is the four MBTs – two belonging to Colari, a Lazio waste consortium; two to Azienda Municipale Ambiente S.p.A. (AMA Roma) – have never been sufficient to complete phase two, that of treatment, especially given two AMA sites have never worked to full capacity.  

 When the MBT of Salario, in Rome’s north and Rocca Cencia in the outer west, were overflowing, trucks stood in line for hours outside the facility, delayed in the collection, spreading miasmas in the surrounding areas. Not to mention that the AMA fleet is run down with only 55 per cent of vehicles leaving the depots every day. In fact AMA has accumulated more than one billion euros in debt. What was missing, therefore, was the aforementioned transhipment phase. Only in July 2018, did the Lazio Region authorize uncovered areas to hold waste waiting to be treated at the Salario and Rocca Cencia facilities.

 So, between 2014 and 2018, phase three (disposal) ceased to exist in Rome; phase two (treatment) works only in part but is supported by the transhipment phase; and phase one (collection) has its problems. 

 In short, the waste cycle is based on a very thin thread and is in crisis at two specific times of the year – in December and July, before becoming lighter just before the holidays. And in 2017 the Colleferro incinerator was closed for restoration works but never reopened. 

 On March 29, 2017, Virginia Raggi presented the “post-consumer materials plan,” with the goal of reaching 70 per cent recycling by 2021. This figure would have rendered the existing cycle sufficient, also freeing itself from the Colari plants and gradually reducing the quotas to be taken out of the region. Now, after more than two years, recycling has never exceeded 45 per cent (less than three per cent in three years), forcing AMA to recalibrate its schedule considerably.

 The system went haywire again on Dec. 10, 2018, when a fire destroyed the Salario MBT. In the following days, citizens of neighbouring districts rebelled and forbid AMA the transhipment phase, making the site unusable. The Capitol finds itself not only having to pay to dump its waste in other regions – with calls for tenders that go unanswered, leading the Antitrust Authority to open an investigation for an alleged cartel between operators – but also to implore the treatment plants in other territories or regions to accept their own waste as it is. 

 The Salario fire makes headlines around the world. In December 2018, Rome gains the support of the other provinces of Lazio and various regions of Italy hence surviving the Christmas holidays. But in the following six months nothing is done to avoid the crisis waiting to happen during the June-July period.

 In January, authorities continue to respond in a confused manner, the “white areas” - zones deemed suitable for waste disposal activities - are assigned in the Lazio Region where new plants are to be built, but the waste plan doesn't yet exist. On the other hand, the municipal government tries to extend the transhipment area of Ponte Malnome – near Malagrotta – and Saxa Rubra (near the Rai studios) - a plan crushed following opposition by local residents.

 Meanwhile, the private MBTs – starting with those of Cerroni – announce partial closure for maintainence of their facilities, exacerbating the problem.