Italy’s troubles with trash

There has been no rubbish collection in the Italian city of Naples since 21 December. Why not? And what does the crisis tell us about Italy?

What's been going on in Naples?

Naples, Italy's most celebrated southern city, is being "swallowed by its own refuse", as The Independent put it. The last regular rubbish collection took place on 21 December and the city's dumps were declared full on Boxing Day.

Since then, trash has been piling up on the streets, up to 100,000 children have been ordered not to attend school due to health fears and, despite the army being called in to clear the worst affected areas, around 7,000 tonnes of "plastic bags, Christmas trees, rotting vegetables, used nappies and broken kitchen implements" still block the streets.

Is this a one-off problem?

Hardly. The Observer's Tom Kington blames the latest rubbish drifts on "social, judicial and political failures" that have haunted the Campanian capital for the past 15 years. The area around Naples was labelled the "triangle of death" in 2004 by researcher Alfred Mazza due to its unusually high rates of cancer blamed on years of illegal toxic and radioactive waste from all over Italy that ended up in local landfill sites. The largest, the Pianura dump, was closed in 1994, but is thought to have been leaking poisonous gases ever since.

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A succession of "Trash Tsars" (the next will be the ninth) have been unable to deliver enough waste incinerators or educate the city's population to separate and recycle waste. As a result, waste of all kinds is simply compacted into huge bales and dumped.

But are there no international rules on waste disposal?

As an EU member, Italy is supposed to comply with a raft of regulations, including the 2006 "Waste Framework Directive" and the 1999 Landfill Directive, which ban hazardous waste from landfills and encourage waste recovery and the use of clean technologies. But enforcement is patchy: over 20 EU states have received non-compliance warnings, but little action has followed, says the BBC.

Yet even among regular offenders, Italy is the worst. The Commission can choose to issue a final warning, after which Rome will be summoned to the European Court of Justice, where fines and even a withdrawal of regional funding are possibilities according to European Commission vice-president Franco Frattini.

So why doesn't Naples act?

The mafia. Known locally as the "Camorra", this "chaotically divided, feuding patchwork of gangs and clans", as The Independent calls it, controls the area's waste disposal. The toxic waste dumps around Naples have generated vast profits for the gang chiefs and paid for "many a Tuscan villa" thanks to the fees they can charge to dispose of hazardous industrial waste from across Italy by compacting it with household rubbish and then illegally dumping it. With no incentive to bring in recycling, a prerequisite for efficient modern incinerators, Naples has simply run out of space to dispose of what local paper Il Matteo estimates is 1,500 million tons of rubbish per year.

How has the government responded?

Sending in the army to clear rubbish from roads and around schools and hospitals was uncontroversial. But a proposal to reopen the toxic Pianura site has caused fury and resulted in government effigies being hanged from trees. "This dump is a bomb of radioactivity and toxicity: if they open it again the poison will escape," said one resident. But even if the site is reopened it won't be enough there are plans to get three more incinerators up and running and costly deals are being negotiated with other regions, and even other countries, such as Germany, to take on extra waste from Naples.

Will that solve Naples' problems?

Perhaps in the short term, although Il Mattino reckons that even if the new incinerators opened immediately they could only cope with 40% of the rubbish produced annually. Because of this and the enormous cost of exporting waste, the reopening of Pianura is likely to go ahead, representing "a confession of dramatic, widespread and total failure" that could mark the end of an era "not just for Naples, but even Italy as a whole", according to a furious Pierluigi Battista, writing in the Corriere della Sera.

For him, and many others, the crisis in Naples is just one symptom of an economy still hamstrung by widespread corruption and inefficiency just this month the Justice Minister, Clemente Mastella, had to resign over corruption charges. As such, Prime Minister Romano Prodi's national initiatives, including attempts to gain control over public finances and quell the activities of the southern mafia, have done little to dispel Italy's reputation for being what the FT calls "the least well-governed country in Europe".

What are the economic consequences?

Dire. For Naples and Campania generally the crisis sent sales of its famous Buffalo Mozzarella cheese "crashing down" by 40%, say local farmers and that was before details of a bacterial disease that can transmit to humans via milk leaked out. The Italian Agricultural Confederation estimates that sales of oil and wine are down 25%, while 35% of the region's vegetables remain unsold. Some hotels say bookings are down 40%.

The outlook is also bleak for the economy as a whole, says Mark Gilbert on Bloomberg. The Bank of Italy recently slashed its 2008 growth forecast to just 1%, tax evasion costs the government up to e100bn per year and due to a lack of confidence amongst lenders Italy pays a huge premium compared to other EU countries to raise debt. So the worry is that when the global economic storm clouds burst, Italy "may get drenched".

Tim graduated with a history degree from Cambridge University in 1989 and, after a year of travelling, joined the financial services firm Ernst and Young in 1990, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994.

He then moved into financial markets training, designing and running a variety of courses at graduate level and beyond for a range of organisations including the Securities and Investment Institute and UBS. He joined MoneyWeek in 2007.