Rome: The filthiest capital in Europe — and it might be second as well
Sandro Ferri, my old friend at my corner edicola, walked out of his small newsstand to show me something on the ground near his window. It was a small circle of what looked like new concrete. It was once a home — for mice. They used to come up through the hole and head to what was on the other side of his newsstand.
I didn’t have to look. I knew. It’s five dumpsters, all bursting at the iron seams from garbage spilling out of their openings, like pus from open sores. Surrounding the dumpsters were piles upon piles of plastic garbage bags, left there too long for Sandro and me to remember when they weren’t.
This is where the mice came to feed, that is, until he covered the hole last month. Sandro has had this newsstand since 1997. I asked him if it was like this then.
“It’s much worse,” he said. “I’ve never seen Rome like this.”
Neither have I. I first came to Rome in 1978. The air was filthy but the streets were clean. I came again in 1998, during Rome’s economic upturn, and they cleaned up the air. The city was as pristine as what you see in the tourist brochures. I lived here from 2001-03 and fell in love with the city, its beauty, its light. I vowed I’d return forever — and today find myself up to my heart in garbage bags.
You may have to go back to the 5th century AD, right after the fall of the Roman Empire when everyone from the Goths to the Vandals sacked the city, to see Rome this filthy. A massive garbage problem that has escalated for six years has turned Rome into the filthiest capital in Europe. I know. I’ve been to every one but Nicosia, Cyprus; Vallata, Malta; Chisinau, Moldova; Bucharest; Sofia; Minsk; Kiev and Warsaw. No other city is within a dumpster fire of Rome as the dirtiest. Rome might be second, too.
I’ve seen worse in the world. Cairo, Jakarta and Port-au-Prince come to mind. However, no other city has built such an international reputation on its respect for beauty. From art to fashion to architecture, Rome has symbolized style, class and elegance since the Renaissance. I tell my friends and visitors that Rome still is the most beautiful city in the world.
Just don’t look down.
If you do, you’ll see sights that will turn your intestines. Bags of garbage spilling out from overflowing dumpsters and onto sidewalks. Seagulls picking open plastic to get to discarded table scraps. Entire stretches of road heading to the beach lined with garbage bags. Hookers sitting on chairs in front of a mountain of trash don’t dress it up a bit.
I’ve read reports of scavenger birds fighting wild boars for rat carcasses.
And the smell … you don’t even have to look while walking down a sidewalk to know you’re by a dumpster. During one stretch this steaming summer, they didn’t pick up the garbage on our street for 15 days. I asked Sandro what’s it like to work next to this and he held his nose.
We live in Monteverde, a “chic” neighborhood of tree-lined streets, classy apartment buildings from the ‘30s and tony bars and restaurants. Yet on most days my street, Via Monte Verde, looks like an alley in rural India.
“Rome is the window on the country,” said Carlo Pascucci, a Monteverde native who runs my neighborhood beer bar, Stappo. “Here is something that jumps in your eyes because we are the fucking Eternal City. The garbage is all around. Rome is the Eternal City. We can’t have eternal rubbish around.”
How bad is it? According to The Associated Press, Rome produces 1.7 cubic tons of rubbish every year. About 1.2 million of it gets exported at a cost of 180 million euros. The other 5 million apparently don’t get collected. Why? Rome’s garbage problems began in 2013 when its Malagrotta landfill, once the largest in Europe and Rome’s only garbage dump for 30 years, closed due to “lack of maintenance.”
Think about that for a second. What kind of lack of maintenance would a garbage dump require to be labeled a “lack of maintenance”? Of the three current landfills, two have been closed for maintenance and another burned to cinders under suspicious circumstances.
What is left is a blighted city and a fuming populace. In October a protest in front of city hall called Rome “an open sewer.” An organization called Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks) did a song parody on the problem.
Rome chief physician Antonio Magi put Rome on “hygiene alert” and could upgrade it to “health warning.” He said diseases are surfacing from — get this — feces of rats, insects and birds eating the trash. Some citizens are spreading rat poison over the excess garbage on the streets, causing more noxious fumes from the rotting rat corpses in Rome’s summer heat.
Who’s to blame? Like Rome’s garbage, blame is spread everywhere:
* AMA ROMA. AMA Roma means “Love Rome.” That’s the most disingenuous name this side of Fox News. The heart for “AMA” on its trucks should be a discarded pizza crust. According to Mayor Virginia Raggi, AMA was 600 million euros in debt as of three years ago. Romans have little sympathy. They pay an average garbage tax of 597 euros per habitat a year, nearly twice Venice which has the second highest at 353. Some offices in Rome pay 4,500 euros.
Private companies have dominated the history of Rome’s garbage collection. Prosecutors have tried connecting it with organized crime and gone after the owner of Malagrotta, Manlio Cerroni, a lawyer who goes by “Il Supremo.” The biggest problem is Rome flat out has no place to put its garbage. The Malagrotta closure put intense pressure on the three other landfills. The fire then knocked out the Salario dump which treated one quarter of Rome’s garbage.
Add maintenance problems on trucks and you have a city of 2.8 million people with no place to throw a wine bottle. Ofttimes, the trucks will pick up the garbage from the overflowing dumpsters but leave on the sidewalk the garbage bags that didn’t fit. Visitors who see piles of garbage next to empty dumpsters must think Romans are as filthy as their city. (More on that later.)
AMA boss Lorenzo Bacagnani has plans. He wants to build 13 new facilities, including three recycling plants, which will process 880,000 tons of waste a year. He says Rome will become “a model for Europe in waste management.” If you know anyone in Rome who wants a landfill in their neighborhood, have them contact Lorenzo. No one has stepped up. I tried talking to AMA. They directed me to the city government.
*CITY GOVERNMENT. The paddle girl in this whole controversy is one 41-year-old Virginia Raggi. Three years ago she became Rome’s first woman mayor on the platform of being an outsider from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. She’s a young, attractive lawyer, not a grizzled, insider politician. She promised to shake things up, including the broken-down organizations of AMA and ATAC, Rome’s pre-Renaissance public transportation service.
She’s beautiful but has had little to no impact. She asked other towns in Lazio and other regions in Italy to open their landfills to Rome. On Facebook, she wrote, “Romans don’t need a new dump or new incinerators. Romans don’t deserve this non solution which would end up sweeping the dust under the carpet once again.”
She has a plan to expand door to door collections from a few neighborhoods to the whole city. Her goal is 70 percent of the waste collected separately by the time her term ends in 2021. The percentage stood at 44 percent last year.
In the meantime, she is battling Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Rome’s Lazio region, in a headline-grabbing blame game. Zingaretti said Raggi should be “ashamed” after she “reduced the most beautiful city in the world into a disaster zone.” She claimed the disaster was manufactured to cause political damage. He claimed this summer he’d solve the problem in seven days, a prediction she — and everyone else — all but laughed at.
It’s been about a month since his boast and yesterday I had to shoehorn a plastic milk bottle into the crammed dumpster on my street.
The infighting and head banging aren’t going over well in a city where the inhabitants are turning on its government. I’ve lived here for seven years over two stints and Romans always amazed me at their ability to stay cheerful through crises. I’ve never seen them so angry.
Christian Raimo, a writer and neighborhood administrator who has supported some protests, wrote, “City managers have demonstrated they’re completely unfit to design an effective strategy able to address Rome’s waste problem.”
I contacted the city and they didn’t return my emails requesting comment.
* CITIZENS. About three weeks ago I was walking to my gym behind two well-dressed, middle-aged Italian men. One blatantly dropped a large plastic wrapper on the sidewalk — right in front of a dumpster far from full. Furious, I pointed at the wrapper and said, “Questo e’ SPAZZATURA! Metterlo nella SPAZZATURA! (That’s GARBAGE! Put it in the GARBAGE!)” What did he do? He shrugged, a shrug that said, “I don’t care and I don’t care what you think.” So I told him, “SEI UNO STRONZO! (YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!) VAFFANCULO! (GO FUCK YOURSELF!)” He turned the corner. I don’t even know if he heard me. Everyone else on the street did. They stared.
The U.S. has many problems but litter isn’t one of them. The rest of Europe is spotless. Last fall I was in Liechtenstein and saw a woman light a cigarette and walk half a block to place the match in a wastebasket.
Mediterannean populations have a reputation for being void of environmental enlightenment. However, I’ve been all through Greece and in many parts of Spain and haven’t seen the blatant disregard for litter as I have in Rome. Much of it isn’t Romans’ fault. If they find no room in dumpsters, they must put their garbage on the sidewalk. I’ve done it. When people on the outskirts see entire rest stops filled with garbage bags, it’s natural to add to the pile.
But it’s clear some Romans don’t care as much about their streets as they do their art, food and fashion.
“We have some kind of ignorance,” said Carlo, sitting in his small air-conditioned bar with such lovely Italian craft beers. “We lost what we were before. There were so many kilometers of city but every neighborhood had its rules. We used to respect. We lived in a way that was taught by our ancestors. But now we’re living what the television and media tell us how to live.”
He told me one day last week he was on his motorbike at a traffic light. Some guy in a car next to him rolled down his window and threw out an empty cigarette package. Pascucci picked it up, took it to him and said, “YOU LOST THIS!”
“He went white,” Pascucci said. “Sometimes these things make me crazy. I said to him, ‘It’s not the right way in this city.’ I put it on his windshield.”
The organization Retake Roma began 10 years ago to help educate Romans about the environment, work with AMA on collections and call police when they see violations. The founder of the Monteverde Vecchio branch, who calls himself Paolo Monteverde for the neighborhood where he grew up and now lives and works, agrees not all of the problems fall on the city.
“We wanted to do something concrete to bring back the decorum of Rome and sensitize the people of Rome of taking civic responsibility,” he said as fellow volunteers swept up leaves and dirt on the sidewalk. “Even though it’s not your private property, it’s everybody’s and so is the civic responsibility, to wake up this civic sense, to bring the beauty back in Rome.”
Organizations like Retake Roma and Roma Fa Schifo give hope to my beloved adopted city. We need a massive parcel of land more than anything else but in the meantime public awareness might make a bigger dent than me cussing out a local on a sidewalk.
Asked about Retake Roma’s mission, he later wrote in an email, “On the one hand making adults and students aware of waste reduction, to differentiate while encouraging the reuse and recycling of materials, etc. On the other hand, explaining the penalties for those who dirty or throw rubbish or leave bulk (furniture) in the street, also collaborating with AMA for some events (they lend us materials and withdraw the sacks of waste that are produced during a Retake event.)
“If we see bulk in the street we report it. If we see who abandons them we report to the police the plate of the vehicle. If we see bags of rubbish outside the bins we put them in. We also promptly inform AMA and/or the municipality of cases of bins overflowing or overturned or burnt or missing or badly positioned.”
The problem has cast a mask of gloom on the normally upbeat Romans. My corner coffee bar, Romagnani Caffe, is my Cheers. Everyone knows each other. All the barristas know what I order. Yet AS Roma’s soccer fortunes are often replaced with conversations of rubbish, like the time they saw an estimated 250 bags of garbage around the previously mentioned dumpsters across the street.
I asked Carlo how sad he is.
“So much. So much,” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I hate this city what it has become. Because it was never like this. This was a different metropolis from all the others all over the world. We used to have a big city with a lot of people that had a community sense, a living-together sense.”
It’s still there. Unfortunately, we are all living together in filth and the sense that this community is falling apart. Add holes in the streets, buses that burst into flames and tortoise-like public services and you have a city on the verge of collapse. Rome is nearly 3,000 years old, was once the center of the most powerful civilization in man’s history and now it can’t pick up a discarded Barilla box.
Maybe it’s time to plug some more holes.