Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Few Words About Trash

Follow-up note:  As of today, March 23rd, the trash has been cleared from the streets!

The Trash in Naples is Back:  It's time I say a few words about the trash in Naples.  I've received quite a few emails inquiries about this topic and, of course, trash in Naples has been an on-going discussion within the national, European, and international press.

When I talk to Neapolitans, I find that trash is a topic of great embarrassment.  Trash, after all, holds connotations of people being dirty and environments being unsanitary, if not toxic.  So when outsiders discuss trash in Naples, a cultural sensitivity has been hit upon.  And perhaps rightly so.  What city or country doesn't have its problems that are an embarrassment to its inhabitants?

But to the best of my ability, I will try to comment on what I have observed about the trash problem in Naples over the last two years.  Someone once told me that ever since the seventies, the old adage has been:  "You come to Rome to see Italy, you come to Naples to smell it."  This would have us believe that trash has been an on-going problem for decades.

Many explain that the trash problem is bound up with the stronghold that the local mafia has on the region.  While nothing can ever be pinned down to exact facts, I've noticed two things:

First, when a trash crisis happens, the city of Caserta about thirty miles north of Naples and the city of Salerno area about thirty miles south of Naples continue to have trash collection and the streets are clean.

Second, when I lived here two years ago during the high-point of another trash crisis, the Italian military came to clean away the mess in order that Italy wouldn't be fined exorbitant amounts by the European Union.  I then left for a week to New York City.  There, I saw quite a bit of trash lying around the streets during the height of the humid summer.  Asking around, local folklore maintained that decades ago, certain Neapolitan families immigrated to New York City and they set up a business -- that happened to be in the sanitation industry.  Interesting.

Perhaps -- and only perhaps -- some aspects of the problem of trash collection is bound up with the culture.  An article written two years ago in L'Espresso (the popular Italian political magazine) asked people what defines someone as 'Italian'.  Most Italians said it wasn't a collective language or geography, but rather their art and history.  The article went on to show that a very high number of Italians feel the largest problem in their country is a lack of civic mindedness.

The culture prides itself on maintaining strong family bonds, especially in Naples where children often never leave their hometown and remain in close proximity to their family, coming together almost by ritual each Sunday for a large lunch.  While you take the good with the bad, these admirable family ties also mean that people outside this circle can often be treated as less important.  Other drivers on the road or other people waiting in line are less important because they are strangers.  As a consequence -- some say -- you can sometimes see people throwing trash out their car window (it's not, after all, their own house which usually is kept extremely pristine).  The city can also face massive shut downs due to strikers who not only effect the businesses they are protesting, but also have a definitive effect on all the other citizens around them.

Today, as I write this, heapfuls of trash lie on the streets in Naples as well as the surrounding suburbs.  Trash collection has stopped due to a strike by sanitation workers disgruntled because they aren't getting paid.  We don't know when the crisis will end or if it will get worse before it gets better.  When tourists come here, the first thing they notice is the trash.  But the Neapolitans are always adamant -- and end up being right:  when summer comes, the trash crisis always ends.

Lest my generalizations about civic consciousness go too far, the people of Naples and Italy are dialoguing about the trash problem in the media, instead of ignoring it.  They want to make changes.  And I would ask that for the sake of cultural sensitivity, outsiders try to relate these problems to many of their own local problems.  If anything, rather than complain and criticize, we expats, tourists, and lovers of Italy would do well to come up with creative ways to be small or big parts of the solution.

Could a large group of Americans and Italians together take to the streets to protest?  Could we write letters to various officials asking for legislation that bans the striking of sanitation workers?  Could we press the city to deliberately contract out sanitation collection to a company located outside of Campania?  Or throughout this crisis, could grass roots associations organize on weekends to collect and transport trash to landfills themselves?

What may be some of your ideas to help solve this on-going crisis?

I would like to leave this post with my translation of a letter published on March 16th in Il Mattino:

Do Tell Il Mattino:  I return to Aversa and we are again submersed in trash

Aversa (15 March) -- Yesterday evening I returned to Aversa, a town in the province of Caserta where I have lived for more than ten years, from a weekend in the mountains where my family and I had the good fortune of evading the gross accumulation of trash on the streets, and in the background the gigantic placards of the regional election campaigns.  Leafing through the local newspapers, I read that the new trash emergency is the cause of a collection strike due to a lack of payments of their salaries.

Whatever the cause, we are again in the middle of trash for which we can do nothing.  I have two children that attend the elementary school and who have lived in an unsanitary environment for years.  What can I do?  The only idea that comes to my mind is to escape as soon as possible this almost unbearable reality.

The thing that affects me the most is to see how in spite of everything, life continues, people continue to busy themselves as if nothing is happening, and those who lament, come to the annoying deduction that we are used to all this trash.

I won't vote in the next regional elections because I believe that everything is futile.  I hope only to leave as soon as possible from a land that has taken away all hope for the future.

P.S.  Every evening for years, at dusk onwards, in Aversa and the neighboring zones one smells a strong stink of burning trash.  Could it be the trash of factories?  Who knows?

Rosanna Vitolo

For today's pictures of Naples trash in Il Mattino click here.


KC said...

I didn't realize that there was a new garbage crisis in Naples...I just wrote a couple of posts on garbage and the neglect of public spaces last week, how apropos.

I don't like in Caserta, but in its province and while my town seems not to have issues with garbage collection (well, the garbage that people put in the required receptacles, the litter in the streets and elsewhere is a different story), I have noticed that when there's a crisis in Naples, there often is in some places in the Casertano.

Anyway, my take on it is that nothing ever changes despite the apparent widespread embarrassment because of the entrenched menefreghismo, which basically sets up a paradigm in which doing anything positive is seen as a waste of time and energy.

Anonymous said...

Such a sad situation. I really think that the young lady in the Il Mattino article should rally all the mothers of the city to march on the city of Naples and demand resolution from the officials so their children can be safe and healthy. Nothing matters more to Italians than children.

Gil said...

There was a trash problem in 2008 and I think the military was used to clean up most of it in the city of Naples before we arrived. We noticed that plenty of the little dumpsters that are around the city were overflowing with trash ending up on the ground. We took via Apia and headed towards Mondragone on our way to Scauri and saw plenty of places with trash piled alongside the road. It had been there so long that is was rotting and I found it next to impossible to get out of the car to take pictures. I just hope and pray the this shame will be dealt with very quickly. Your post surprised me because I've been reading about a trash problem that now exists in Palermo.

KC said...

Just noticed that I typed "like" in the second sentence of my comment instead of "live." Must have been a Freudian slip, lol.

Barbara said...

'Menefreghismo'... I like this word. I'm now going to use it often.

My heart cried for this woman who wrote into Il Mattino.

Interesting about Palermo, Gil. When I was up North they were having a trash crisis there as well. But everyone said that during elections it's common for trash pickup to cease. Once elections are over, everything resumes and the streets are clean. The elections are going on also here in Campania, so I wonder if it isn't also about politics & elections?


Diana and "Guido" said...

I'm a bit behind in my blog reading as you can see.
This subject interests me a lot because I was so struck by how unbelieveably clean my neighbors houses are with marble that glistens while mine sulks, but you walk outside and there is trash collecting in the streets. On the beach, I spend the first hour cleaning up. I get compliments (sometimes) from other beach users but never any help. Since clean beaches are important for the oceans, I'm not going to give up. I remember the US in the fifties was similar. I remember regular people throwing bags of garbage out the car window. There is some sort of awareness switch that will happen, I'm sure of it. I just hope all the good things about the culture won't disappear along with the trash.