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Recycling comes to Rome – with the force of empire

Unexpectedly I’m stuck with a bag of organic waste I can’t get rid of. I’ve rented an apartment carved out of the corner of a palazzo near Campo dei Fiori, in Rome. My organic and non-recyclable waste doesn’t get picked up by the city’s waste management agency AMA, Azienda Municipale Ambiente, because my apartment is not part of a typical Roman condominium block.

The click clack of stiletto heels draws me to my open window. I see women with designer purses in one hand and a garbage bag in the other. I grab my grease-stained paper bag and follow them to the piazza where an AMA worker is collecting plastic and glass recyclables. She wears AMA’s stylish burgundy-coloured uniform – pants, a polo shirt, and matching vest. Her hair is long, blond, and styled. She wears gold earrings, a gold necklace, and sunglasses. “I’ll take the bag this time,” she smiles. The next week, I wave down an AMA truck. The driver takes my stinking paper bag of organic waste and advises me to leave it outside my door. “Now that I know you, I’ll pick it up.” But two weeks later my AMA friend gets transferred and I get stuck holding the stinking bag.

An AMA garbage truck

Unlike Naples where mounds of monnezza (slang for trash) fill piazzas and streets, Rome is tackling its eternal garbage problem head on. Italy’s capital city sprang into action after facing criticism for shamefully neglecting its urban landscape. It has the dubious honour of being at the top of the European trash heap, collecting over 2 million tonnes of garbage a year.

To get the job done AMA reorganized itself into a modern, urban, recycling enterprise with the efficiency, determination, and brawn of its ancient Roman conquerors. It mobilized an army of sanitation workers and ‘agenti accertatori’ (inspection agents) – over 7,300 and it introduced recycling in Rome’s historical centre. The legion of workers includes the squadre decoro (decorum teams) who clear the streets of graffiti and flyers and cemetery workers who keep Romans’ final resting place clean and tidy. From birth to death AMA is there, picking up after its citizens. The city calls it a revolutionary restructuring and an unprecedented campaign that engages its 4 million citizens like never before.

Romans don’t know what to make of all this bureaucratic efficiency. It’s an enemy they’ve never faced before. Collecting garbage in Rome’s historical centre is complicated. There’s no room for recycling bins in the maze of cobblestone streets where ancient ruins, piazzas, palazzi, cars, Vespas, people, fountains, market stalls, and restaurant tables bump up against each other at every turn.

It's Italy. Even the warning signs have class

On the walls of Rome’s elegant palaces stone plaques dating back to the eighteenth century warn against littering, “no dumping is allowed, including plaster chunks, hay, weeds, dead animals or any other similar thing… a fine of 25 gold scudi, one quarter of which will go to the informer whose identity will remain a secret. Fathers will be responsible for sons, masters for servants.” Another warns “the penalty for dumping garbage will be 10 scudi and whatever the lawmaker chooses.”

Until now Romans simply bagged their monnezza and dropped it outside their door.

If there were no rules before, there are plenty of rules now, and hefty fines – 250 euro if you abandon your dog’s poop in the piazza and 500 euro for mixing parmigiano rinds with wine bottles. Romans are throwing their arms up in the air. AMA is Europe’s largest waste management agency and it’s on a garbage rampage, issuing over 5,000 fines to date.

The recycling program rolled out with typical Roman fanfare: art events, a mass in honour of AMA’s patron – the Madonna of the Streets; a polished magazine – Amaroma, a website, neighbourhood information kiosks, and a free compost bag. In July, its publicity campaign appealed to Romans’ undying amore for their city. Starring actress and sex symbol Manuela Arcuri, it featured a slogan that incorporates AMA’s acronym which also reads as the verb to love – Chi ama Roma, l’ama davvero (Whoever loves Rome really loves her).

This warning sign forgot to mention graffiti

A spin-off on the slogan targets newlyweds: Chi Ama Roma si Ama davvero (Whoever loves Rome is really in love). Couples who register for a marriage certificate (over 10,000 a year) receive a recycling guidebook, accompanied by a congratulatory letter from the mayor. In it he writes stirringly about the couple’s new home together; about separating garbage; about a sustainable future for ‘our children’.

Here’s how Romans show their amore: instead of recycling bins residents receive colour-coded, clear plastic bags – one for glass, metal and plastics; one for paper products, and a third for non-recyclable garbage. A forth paper bag takes care of organic waste. On designated days a garbage truck pulls up in the local piazza – AMA calls it the mobile drop off point. You have one hour to haul your plastic bag to the piazza. Organic waste and non-recyclables are picked up at the door. An AMA agent rings the condominium doorbell and waits for someone to buzz him to collect the garbage. If your hours of work don’t coincide with pickup times, or if no one hears the doorbell, tough. The honeymoon is over.

Nobody ever rings my doorbell. I notice up the street from Sant’Andrea della Valle, where Tosca meets her lover, a pile of garbage bags clinging to the curving wall of the former Teatro di Pompeo, just below an AMA notice warning not to dump garbage. A hand-written note from an exasperated resident pleads not to leave garbage before 10pm.

Late at night, I sneak over and tuck my organic waste bag into a plastic bag. By sunrise the pile of garbage doubles in size. A new note on the wall screams, “Baia dei porci” (Bay of Pigs). I’m guilty but oddly resolute. The next week I do it again. AMA keeps missing my bag and the neighbourhood cats make a mess of it. What can I do? Pray to the Madonna of the Streets?

Soon enough two agenti accertatori show up asking questions. “Who’s dumping the garbage?” Shoulders are shrugged, no one knows anything. “It’s probably tourists”, someone offers. “The note is wrong,” the agent adds, taking it down, “You can’t put garbage out on the street, not even after 10pm.” The other agent reminds us of the fine. He makes a call and before long a little garbage truck, covered in graffiti, zooms over from Campo dei Fiori. Presto! The monnezza is gone.

Finally, I get to show my love for Rome. AMA and I work out an understanding – I put my paper bag inside a plastic bag without tying it shut; I place it outside my door at 7:30 a.m., and AMA picks it up. As a backup, my neighbour will let me dump my garbage in her condominium’s bins. Arrivederci monezza!

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