What’s with all the trash in Rome?

You can’t spend more than a few hours in the most beautiful city on earth without seeing or smelling a very unfortunate truth: surrounding its mind-blowing beauty, Rome is utterly filthy.

It’s a tragedy of epic proportions: the most beautiful and historically significant city on planet earth is covered in garbage – “a museum in a landfill” as one wag has deemed it – and the situation seems to get worse every year.

Looking back at old videos of Rome from the 1950s and 1960s, the most striking thing about the city is how spotlessly clean the streets are. Sadly, today’s degraded look does not become the capital of a first-world country: Rome is now surely the dirtiest capital city in Europe, if not the developed world.

Whether it’s the stinking, overflowing line of dumpsters that stand on every street corner, or the thin carpet of waste that coats every gutter and sidewalk in every area outside the most central and touristy zones, Rome is visibly unable to deal with the rubbish produced by its inhabitants and visitors.

The only beneficiaries of the situation seem to be the giant and aggressive herring gulls, many of which are fourth- or fifth-generation birds that have never seen the sea: they have only ever lived in the city and eaten scraps left behind by humans. They now compete with increasingly large families of wild boar that in recent years have migrated from the forests of Lazio to become a menace in the outer – and now the inner – suburbs.

Like much else in Rome, the reasons for this are cryptic and baroque. We examine them here.

The trash disposal system in Rome is fundamentally broken

In the late 20th century Rome enjoyed regular weekly kerbside pickup by a dump truck, where householders brought out their trash on an appointed day – as in most parts of the developed world – but in the 1990s some bright spark decided to externalize the problem of domestic waste disposal, moving its retention from each household managing a small amount of trash in the home, to the city authorities managing large amounts on the street. This was done by the installation of dumpsters on most street corners.

With the advent of recycling, the number of dumpsters required for this exercise increased exponentially, resulting in most street corners playing host to four different types: paper & cardboard (white or yellow dumpster), plastic and metal (blue dumpster), glass (green ‘bomb’), and unsorted, unrecyclable (indifferenziato) trash (black or gray dumpster). 

The disposal system in the city is working above or close to capacity at all times. If there is a delay in emptying a dumpster of even a few hours, then people who have trekked out of their houses bearing armloads of trash will place the trash next to the dumpster, not in it (they will never, ever return to their house with the trash). 

Once the garbage has left the city it is faced with further problems. The Discarica di Malagrotta, despite sounding like something from a Roman myth, is actually one of Rome’s major landfill sites – the largest in Europe – that was closed down under a cloud of scandal in 2013, and has not yet been replaced. Add to that frequent and toxic fires at Malagrotta and other landfill and recycling centres (some of which appear to have been set deliberately), and the dump trucks are faced with a lack of places to go, some of which leads to backlogs where trucks are unable to unload, and may be stuck for hours or even overnight before they can empty themselves.

So bad is the disposal problem that Rome has for years brought its trash over the Alban hills to neighboring Abruzzo, but since 2021 this contract has not been renewed; the city therefore sometimes finds itself exporting its trash as far away as Austria and the Netherlands because there’s nowhere else for it to go. This wins absolutely zero points for sustainability or carbon footprint. 

Rome’s trash disposal organization is dysfunctional

City garbage disposal in Rome is managed by a corporation called AMA (Azienda Municipale Ambiente). This works for the comune (city council), which is led and managed by Rome’s mayor. In recent years a succession of mayors have repeatedly reshuffled the senior management of the corporation, but it is a seemingly insoluble issue: AMA is always in debt, and constantly in crisis. There are also rumors of entrenched corruption in local government infrastructure, the major symptom of which is the provision of overpriced and poorly performing public services, a practice unveiled starkly during the Mafia Capitale scandal of 2014.

Whatever the reason, AMA is under-funded and short-staffed, and does not have enough equipment. It is also poorly managed at a tactical level, with a seemingly fragmented and chaotic division of labor that almost seems designed to worsen the situation: e.g. there’s a division for driving a truck to pick up one type of trash daily, another for driving a truck to pick up another type of trash every two days, yet another for street cleaning, and none of them ever seem to work in concert (except in tourist areas and near the houses of politicians).

In 2021 Rome’s mayor desperately and risibly offered AMA workers a bonus if they didn’t “pull a sickie” in the weeks leading up to Christmas in order to fulfil an election promise that Rome would be “clean by Christmas”. His promise, of course, was hollow.

AMA workers are also occasionally on strike, which means there may be several days without one or other of the dumpsters being emptied, bags of trash will build up in huge piles on the sidewalk and spill into the road to be hit by cars or pecked apart by seagulls, releasing their contents to the wind.

Even when the refuse system in Rome is working, it’s still a horrible system

The idea of having a permanent line of hideous, battered dumpsters on each corner in the most beautiful city on earth is intrinsically a stupid one. Even were everything kept tidy, the dumpsters would still be a glaring eyesore – “a monstrous carbunkle on the face of a much-loved friend” to paraphrase a certain king. Moreover, Rome’s climate is hot. When the temperature rises above about 30C (85F) the contents of the dumpsters start to ferment and stink. When the temperature is in the high 30s or even above 40 (110-115F) the stench is unbearable, especially for those poor individuals and businesses with their premises nearby. (Something of a lesser problem, but the lines of dumpsters also take up much-needed parking spaces.)

Because the dumpsters are “always on”, businesses, too, illegally dump trash in dumpsters that are meant for domestic use, contributing to the overcapacity. It’s not a coincidence that they stink of rotting fish when they are positioned near seafood restaurants.

The trucks that pick up the dumpsters are supposed to do so daily. They frequently miss their target, resulting in dumpster overflow.

Due to staffing cuts, each truck is now operated by only one driver, who manuevers a robotic arm that lifts the dumpster up, inverts it over the truck to empty it, and then returns it to the ground. It is not the driver’s job to fix any problems that may occur during this operation: if trash falls out of the dumpster onto the street during the emptying process, or if the trash is already overflowing the dumpster or hanging from it sides – which is a daily occurrence – it’s someone else’s problem to fix. A street-cleaning team is meant to follow these trucks around, but unless a politician is involved somewhow, any given street is lucky to see such a team every month.

To exacerbate the problem, there are human scavengers who prop the lids of the dumpsters open and trawl through them with long sticks, hauling garbage out onto the ground to look for scrap metal and other stuff they can sell, leaving a mess all over the street; worse still, other people use them as a shield for going to the bathroom at night.

There are some areas of Rome (such as San Lorenzo) that have done away with the dumpsters and reverted to regular kerbside pickup, but the dumping of trash in the street has now become so endemic that while the streets there are somewhat cleaner than nearby area, they’re still a disgrace.

There is an apparent lack of sense of individual responsibility for the shared environment among some of the local population

This is a sensitive topic and one with which we are sure many local people will disagree vehemently. But it is an observation drawn from having lived in many other cities as well as Rome:

Despite their priceless cultural inheritance, where it comes to personal responsibility for the environment that surrounds them, some Romans are wont to complain that “someone should do something about that” and go on their way without every considering that the “someone” could be them: the famous “tragedy of the commons“.

While there are a few notable and laudable collective voluntary movements that address the problem, such as the Retake Roma group, few local people appear to take the initiative to act individually or to form impromptu collective action to fix minor problems in their immediate surroundings. They feel the comune should do it – after all, as part of local taxation they pay an unjustifiably high fee to AMA – and so from observation, most residents of the city will walk past a large piece of trash even if it is next to a trash can, without it ever occurring to them that perhaps they themselves could spend a few seconds doing something mildly inconvenient for the sake of the common good.

While some Romans like to blame tourists or foreigners in general for littering, it isn’t tourists and foreigners that we see every day in the suburbs throwing fast food bags out of car windows, dropping empty cigarette buts and Heets packets on the sidewalk, or throwing empty plastic water bottles over their shoulders when they’ve finished with them. Indeed during the pandemic when tourism stopped completely, the trash problem continued unabated.

In fact it is only the main tourist centers that are clean, at least relatively so compared to the majority of the city. There, AMA definitely does its best (the emptying of the dumpsters in Villa Borghese in the early morning is military in its precision and attention to detail, involving seven trucks and a troop of smartly uniformed operatives).

This is not to denigrate the Roman population per se: but while the majority of Romans are respectful of their environment, visible littering by others is ignored, almost tolerated, by those who themselves do not litter, rather than publically shaming the perpetrator: “I didn’t do it so why should I fix it?”

As a visitor to Rome, what can I do about the trash?

Nothing about this article changes the wonder and majesty of Rome, but it does explain a shameful problem that we who live here have to endure every day.

If you’re visiting, the only thing you can really do is to try not to contribute to the problem: if the nearest trash can to you is overflowing, please carry the trash with you until you can dispose of it in the next suitable receptacle, be that trash can or (the correct type of) dumpster. If you see an obvious and easy-to-dispose-of piece of trash on the street, maybe help by picking it up.

Such is the problem that one form of “street theater” begging has arisen in the last five or six years: men will take a broom and render a section of street pristine in exchange for a few coins. They should be encouraged, even though a few hours after they have departed, the street will revert to its previous state. Alas, the same goes for the laudable attempts of Retake Roma – they choose an area, pick up the trash, clean graffiti off walls, make it pristine, but days later it’s as if they were never there.

In our opinion the only way to change things sustainably is a fundamental, root-and-branch reform of the systems, while at the same time, local residents need to find a way to build small acts of altruism into their daily lives.

There’s not a lot else that you, as a visitor, can do. Maybe write a letter to the mayor expressing your disappointment. But shame is not an emotion that many politicians experience these days.

Rome is the eternal city, and hope springs eternal too: we hope that this horrible problem will one day be resolved, but we won’t be holding our breaths – unless we’re walking past a dumpster during the summer.

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Photo credit: AFP

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