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Enough with the garbage debate already!

Continuing my post last week in which I started a series on things we've found in Sicily to be subordinate to the American way of life. This one begs the question, is it really?

In previous posts my only consideration for what belongs on this list is from a user’s point of view, but this one is shared across many: Users, Producers, Creators, Municipalities, and really, who knows (veramente, chissà!) who else has their hands in the massive garbage problem afflicting Sicily, and much of Italy, and other parts of Europe, too.

But before you start to think that this is also not an American problem, read on. Because we all have a role in fixing what’s broken when it comes to trash.

It’s really quite shocking, the first time you see it. Like something you’d see in a post-apocalyptic world, where things have not quite gone south enough to cease consumer consumption—which is by the way what will likely deliver us one day to this hellish nightmare scenario—but, for one reason or another, town services are no longer equipped to deal with the sheer magnitude of our toss-it-away attitude.

And there I go, in hardly more words than Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, I’ve fallen into the same trap as almost everyone else who will view the picture headlining this essay, by asking the question: What the fuck is wrong with people?

Have they no pride? Have they no concern for the planet? Have they no consideration, if not for themselves, then for others?

It’s an easy trap, blaming the user. We do it all the time. Take cigarettes for example. Don’t want cancer? Don’t smoke. Worried about diabetes? Lay off the soda. Feeling fat and lazy? Then get up off the couch.

It’s terrible, it really is, and I’m certainly no better than anyone else, throwing around my favorite GK Chesterton quote like slices of fruitcake at a Carolina Christmas party: “It’s not that they can’t see the solution, they can’t even see the problem.”

The Problem in Plain View

But with this garbage thing, what really is the issue here? Is it that some people really don’t know what to do with their garbage, that they’ve never seen others set rubbish outside their own door and then someone considerately comes along and carts it off? Do they consume so much crap that the daily garbage pickup in Sicily is not enough to handle the load? Or are there people in this world who simply despise a clean countryside?

It doesn’t feel like any of those are the case. That pile of trash, if you were to expand the photo above, would reveal nothing special. Wooden hangers. Plastic containers. Wire racks and pieces of old furniture. It’s not like people aren’t sure what to do with the leftover spare parts to their particle supercollider or Aunt Anne’s ashes and so drive them to the nearest deserted road and toss them out the car window, trash bag and all. It’s just the normal, household variety kind of rubbish.

How waste works in Sicily

So, if the problem doesn’t rest entirely with end user incompetence or willfully chosen disregard, then who else can we blame? To dig deeper (sorry, landfill pun), let’s first briefly consider how garbage is managed today in Italy. Generally, it happens at the municipal level in accordance with law, which can differ from area to area. That’s important to know because following the garbage crisis that arose in the south of Italy in the late 90s many town municipalities began to provide recycling services and on site collection instead of requiring people to take their garbage to communal landfill centers.

This caused two things to happen. One, in order to convince people of the convenience of door-to-door collection, municipalities removed the large, communal bins which were, as you might’ve guess, located along roadsides, such as the area pictured above.

And Two, the town insisted that households follow a very precise and well-enforced schedule, insisting that garbage be sorted according to the following categories:

  • Rifiuti indifferenziati - non-recyclable waste (landfill stuff)
  • Raccolta differenziati - recyclable waste (glass, plastic, paper, metal)
  • Rifiuti organici – organic waste (compost)

Which was then collected on certain days of the week. Here is the schedule for our town, Troina, which, as you will see, offers very clear instruction:

That’s quite a burden to drop suddenly (or even not suddenly) on residents, who went from thinking about garbage at most once a week to thinking about garbage six out of seven days of the week. Which is not to say that that shouldn’t be the case, but we’re talking about changing habits and in the words of the American political activist, Thomas Paine:

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Finally, the price for this much-needed improvement was, of course, levied as a tax, called tassa sui rifiuti or TARI, which is issued annually to the property owner or occupant and based on the square footage of the property AND the level of participation by all members of the community in the recycling effort.

This is where it gets tricky. For example, in Catania, a family of three, with a house of 1,100 square feet, pays just over 500 euros per year in TARI. In Bergamo, a family with the same characteristics pays 203 euros, two and a half times less. Why? Because in Catania, they are only sorting 11% of their recyclable waste, while Bergamo recycles 76% of it. Somebody has to pay to export all that additional nonsense (to where, who knows), and so: Hello, resident. Even if you’re one of the responsible ones doing the right thing you pay for that asshole of a neighbor to live like there’s no tomorrow. To the tune, in Catania alone, of 350 tons a day exported to become someone else’s problem.

The Insurance of Absurdity

Only it isn’t being exported, not all of it anyway. A lot of it is being dumped on the sides of the road. Which brings us to the second most important thing to know about the waste management in Sicily: Garbage pickup is contracted, as it is in America, to the local municipality by for-profit companies, which generally means, in terms of public health—an arena standing piles of filthy trash certainly occupies—if someone’s getting sick, somebody else is getting rich.

In fact, as far back as 2009 (itself a response to a crisis which began in 1999) people started to become concerned that the most likely offender to the exploding garbage crisis were these outsourced companies being paid to carry the garbage to the landfills. Though it wasn’t entirely from lack of effort. Company drivers got paid if the trash was picked up, not if it reached its intended destination.

And what was happening around this time? An increased focus on recycling, which, in order to pay for those centers, municipalities closed the kinds of landfills that could only accept Rifiuti indifferenziati, that is non-recyclable waste. And why shouldn’t they? The use of landfills is no longer a satisfactory environmental solution. In fact, it’s the worst. New methods have to be found and toward that end Sicily has become a leader in both its push for citizens to do more and in constructing waste-to-energy facilities, which can reduce the weight of solid waste by up to 40%.

All of which meant that these companies were finding less and less facilities who could take the kind of garbage they were contracted to deliver. The driver, who you’ll remember got paid if they only picked up the trash, couldn’t very well return it to the town, so what option was left for them? Only one. Dump it. Somewhere, anywhere. Just don’t you show up back at the yard with a truck full of rotting, motherfucking trash.

The Squeaky Clean

So now, finally, we have arrived at something useful. First, Workers not being paid fairly; and Two, the generation of too much non-recyclable garbage. By a few, by many, by assholes or not, doesn’t matter. In the end we are all to blame and must do better because the system simply can’t handle it.

And that’s how a consumption problem becomes an income equality problem. It’s how littered roads and streets and alleys become the backdrop in our superfluous search for someone to blame when the real issue is sometimes staring us back through the mirror. Greed. Overconsumption.

You want a pretty Sicily? Or prettier Naples? Or prettier Anywhere, USA. Stop buying so much stuff. Stop tossing it in the trash when you get bored with it or want to replace it because your asshole neighbor just got the newest, hottest thing. Insist that the manufacturers of the stuff you do buy are behaving responsibly with a better, healthier planet in mind.

Why are we still buying water in plastic bottles? Why are we still putting our groceries in single-use bags, or putting anything in any kind of container that can’t be re-filled like shampoo, cleaners, oils. Why are disposable dishes still even a thing, or individually wrapped packages, or drive-thrus? Why are we allowing companies to design and sell things which incorporate planned obsolescence?

I could go on as the list is long of things we all need to change about the way we live, but I’ll spare you because you already know what they are. What I would like to add is what I took away from my research into the garbage situation here, which is this: First impressions matter, but what matters more is that we don’t stop there but seek to learn more about the situation, about the people, about the world around us so we can demand better from the squeaky clean culprits truly responsible.

Doing so requires an open mind, true, but even more so it may require us to change our own long-standing habits, no matter where you call home.

Interested in learning more about what we all can do to reduce waste, visit Story of Stuff and watch this insightful film that started it all.


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