Rome prepares to ship its rubbish across Europe, raising environmental concerns

Local rubbish collector AMA halted trash pickup, as some of plants in the vicinity of Rome were closed for maintenance. [EPA/PERCOSSI]

The exit strategy from Rome’s current garbage crisis involves re-routing thousands of tonnes of junk to Sweden and other EU countries, with a huge financial and environmental cost in terms of CO2 emissions.

The Eternal City faces its perpetual problem with trash disposal. Problems started in 2013 when EU authorities ordered axing the city’s biggest dumping site, Malagrotta, saying the landfill did not comply with European standards on waste treatment.

Difficulties piled up when incinerators and waste treatment plants in Rome’s vicinity were closed for maintenance, leaving the remaining ones working at maximum capacity. And a full-blown crisis erupted after a local rubbish collector, AMA, decided to halt waste collection.

At the end of June, the government of the Lazio Region released a public health alert due to a combination of lack of trash pickup and an unusual heatwave.

The situation in the capital became so critical that the Italian Pediatric Society suggested keeping children at home, especially those with allergies, in order to avoid potential health hazards.

On 5 July, the regional government issued an administrative order that allowed AMA to use all the plants in the region and deploy extraordinary resources to clean up the capital in seven days.

Days later, Italy’s government decided to step in and coordinate efforts put in place by the municipality of Rome and the Lazio region, giving a more reasonable deadline of two weeks to clean up the city.

The situation has improved somewhat since. In the last days, AMA collected almost 13,000 tonnes of garbage, 400 new dumpsters were deployed and streets were sanitised with municipal road tankers.

However, if the problem of rubbish collection seems temporarily solved, difficulties persist with waste disposal.

“In the medium term, we are negotiating with other EU member states to deliver the surplus of waste abroad,” Italy’s Environment Minister Sergio Costa said on Tuesday (9 July) after a first coordination meeting with local authorities.

Sweeping under the rug

Thousands of tonnes of junk will be now be shipped to Stockholm and Goteborg, where the rubbish will be incinerated to produce energy.

Negotiations are ongoing also with Bulgaria, where garbage could be delivered by train in the next weeks. Other options available are Portugal, Cyprus and Austria, according to Il Messaggero, a newspaper.

Shipping waste doesn’t come cheap, however. Romans are already paying an average garbage fee of €394 per year, significantly above the average of other Italian cities, which is around €300.

But on top of the financial costs, the shipments will also carry an environmental price tag. According to a tool developed by researchers at the Technological University of Denmark and the University of Southern Denmark, fuel emissions of a standard container ship range from 829 kg to 1,606 kg of CO2 and from 4.9 to 9.6 kg of NOx per nautical mile (nm).

Distance from Civitavecchia, the closest port to the capital, toward Sweden is more than 3,000 nautical mile.

Environment Minister Sergio Costa, who is affiliated to the ruling Five Star Movement, said delivering rubbish abroad is a bridging solution that will last for 2 or 3 years until new waste treatment plants are built.

However, no further plants or landfills are planned in the near term, meaning Rome’s dependency on other countries for waste treatment is likely to persist.

Blame game

The garbage crisis also triggered a dispute over who should be held accountable.

The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is one of the first political figures from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to win a local election in Italy. However, the regional government is led by the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is in opposition. And  Nicola Zingaretti, the governor of the Lazio region, is also national leader of the PD.

“The municipality is completely unable of managing a basic service such as waste collection,” said Massimilano Smeriglio, a newly-elected MEP from the PD. Before he was elected to the European Parliament, Smeriglio served for more than 6 years as vice-president of the Lazio region in Zingaretti’s administration.

“Alas, this waste affair is just another failure of Raggi’s administration,” Smeriglio told EURACTIV. Under Five Star rule, Rome has become a disorganised and impoverished city, he claimed, adding the city now shows its most ugly face.

Daniela Rondinelli, another freshly-elected Five Star MEP from the Central Italy constituency, disagrees. Contacted by EURACTIV, she accused Zingaretti of having issued the 5 July regional administrative order with “enormous delay.”

“We can solve the problem of waste in Rome only through institutional cooperation among all,” she said, adding that the commitment of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and of Minister Costa will bear fruit.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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