Italy: Naples's Stinky, Dirty Trash Crisis

Life in always-gritty Naples has just gotten that much worse. Thanks to a garbage crisis that has suffocated the southern Italian city in recent days, over 3,000 tons of uncollected trash is piling up on city streets and is scattered throughout the picturesque countryside. Plastic bags of debris float in the bay, and everything from soiled diapers to plastic water bottles have washed up on the famed beaches as far south as the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia. In some parts of the city, garbage bags writhing with rats and cockroaches are stacked up to 10 feet high over several city blocks. Some narrow alleyways are completely blockaded by overflowing dumpsters; other streets are made impassable by swarms of flies hovering around the festering heaps.

This is not the first time Neapolitans have faced a garbage crisis. In 2004, residents staged weeks of protests when collectors refused to pick up the trash—primarily due to infighting between various factions of the Camorra organized crime syndicate that, according to the Legambiente environmental group, largely controls the region's lucrative waste-removal industry. (Profits run at an estimated €22 million, almost $30 million, annually.) Back then, the problem was with collecting the garbage, not dumping it. That allowed beleaguered residents and volunteers to manage the litter by carting it away themselves. This time, though, the collectors have not picked it up simply because they have nowhere to take it. The city's three main garbage dumps were closed down by the government for safety violations and the fourth will close on May 26, when it reaches capacity. Once that happens, even the garbage that is now being collected on an emergency basis—when it blocks emergency services and main thoroughfares—will be left to rot. Adding to the chaos, Guido Bertolaso, the chief of the civil protection service, the "garbage czar" seen as Naples's last hope for solving the problem, is threatening to resign. "The garbage situation in Campania is tragic," says President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano. "This is as bad an emergency as Naples has ever had."

To make matters worse, if that's possible, the refuse that is not baking under the 30-degree Celsius/86-degree Fahrenheit heat is being burned by local residents taking matters into their own hands. On Sunday, local fire fighters put out 150 individual garbage fires, many in the small villages along the flanks of Mt. Vesuvius and in the city. By Tuesday, 130 fires were reported in Naples alone, and officials urged residents to don face masks to counter the health risks posed by the toxic smoke from burning chemicals in the garbage. They also warned residents to avoid the burned carcasses of alley cats and rodents that remain after the fires. Early this week, many of the city's public-school children were issued masks after the stench left them nauseous and vomiting. One Neapolitan school has already closed due to a rat infestation; others are slated to close later this week.

All this just as the region's main industry, tourism, enters its peak season. If the problem isn't solved, thousands of tourists will have to wade through the waste-filled streets to see the sights. Outside the city, they will have to pass by huge piles of decomposing garbage to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius. The normally stunning drive from Naples down the Amalfi Coast is also dotted with garbage bags, often torn open with their contents strewn along the roadside. Local officials have warned residents and tourists to avoid stray packs of dogs that may have been in contact with contaminated garbage.

With the relentless heat and humidity that define the Neapolitan summer just beginning, health officials warn that the crisis could move from an environmental disaster to a full-blown health crisis. Already, dozens of Neapolitans have sought medical treatment for burning eyes and nausea. City health inspectors have started to test the air quality around some of the largest piles of garbage. There are serious concerns about infectious diseases like cholera reaching epidemic proportions if the garbage is not removed. Banks, hotels and restaurants will also be closed if the air quality or health risk is deemed hazardous.

Worst of all, there is no realistic end in sight. Plans to build four new dumpsites have been in the works for over a year, agreed upon by local and regional officials May 11, 2006. But an unlikely combination of residents who do not want the incinerators in their communities and local crime syndicates who don't want to cut into their illegal dumping profits, have so far successfully halted construction. One proposed dump site, the Macchia Soprana, is adjacent to a World Wildlife Federation park. Another, near the southern city of Salerno, would be directly on the train line used by many tourists visiting the Amalfi Coast. Even if a compromise is reached, it is unlikely that the sites would be in operation before the end of the summer. "We've got 3,000 tons of garbage in the streets of our city and no real solution to resolve the situation," says Rosa Russo Jervolino, mayor of Naples. "Considering I don't have a magic wand to fix the problem, I just hope we can somehow survive the summer." No doubt Neapolitans are fervently echoing that wish.