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The Eternal Struggle with Trash: How Rome’s Garbage Crisis Became a Battle for its Reputation and Health

  The approximately 2,000-year-old Colosseum was invaded by a group of uninvited guests this summer.
  At the end of August, a tourist noticed a lot of rats walking near the Colosseum, so he took a video and posted it on social media. The videos went viral and had a negative impact on Rome’s international image.
  On the evening of August 25, the Rome city government launched a special operation to eradicate rats overnight. They sent cleaning crews to pick up plastic water bottles, drink cans and other trash near the Colosseum, taking photos and uploading them to social media in an effort to salvage the city’s tarnished image.
  There are approximately 7 million rats in Rome, with an average of 2.5 rats per citizen, the municipal department said in a statement. The proliferation of rats in cities has seriously affected the lives of local residents and the experience of tourists. Some medical experts are also worried that these animals that feed on garbage will spread diseases.
  Rome has been plagued by rats for more than a year or two. Inefficient collection and transportation has caused garbage to pile up in this ancient city. Rome has almost become a city defenseless against rats.
The Rat Army of the Colosseum

  In just one week at the end of August, at least 10 videos of rats shot by tourists appeared on the Internet. The video shows rats running in family groups around the Colosseum, weaving in and out of weeds, waste, bottles and decay. Dozens of rats chase each other, rummage through garbage for food, and even compete for trophies right in front of tourists. The mouse seems to have become the master of this famous attraction.
  An infestation of rats has sparked a municipal conflict in the Italian capital. Right-wing politicians are eager to challenge the center-left Democratic mayor. “It is disgraceful that the most important archaeological area in the world is in this condition,” pro-right Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano blasted on television. He said he had called Rome Mayor Roberto Gua. Altieri to discuss a coordinated plan to address this issue.
  Alessandro Honorato, the Rome city councilor responsible for tourism and major events, was dissatisfied with the minister’s interference in municipal affairs. He believes that the culture minister only emphasized the negative aspects and failed to take note of the huge efforts made by municipal departments to revive tourism. “Rome will break every record for tourist arrivals this year,” he boasted.
  The mayor’s right-hand woman, Rome’s environmental councilor Sabrina Alfonsi, blamed the severe rat infestation on the city’s massive summer influx. tourists. The surging number of tourists has left behind a large amount of garbage, which provides nutrients for the breeding of rats, and the heat wave has also accelerated the rate of rat breeding. She acknowledged that Rome has always had rats “like all cities in the world” but stressed: “Rome is not a rat-infested city.”

  Rats chewed up the network fiber around St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, causing the area to be disconnected for five consecutive days.

  In fact, Rome’s rat problem was the result of years of failed municipal governance. With or without tourists, Rome’s rat infestation is out of control. The Italian Society of Environmental Medicine estimates that the number of rats far exceeds the official claim of 7 million. There are approximately 10 million rats, which is 3.5 times the total population of Rome. Rome’s plague control contract had been stagnant for at least three years. Without control, the number of rats in Rome has grown out of control, reaching health emergency levels. Medical experts pointed out that rats can directly or indirectly transmit about 40 kinds of diseases, including leptospirosis, plague, salmonellosis, etc., and public health may be threatened.
  At the end of July, rats chewed up the network fibers around Rome’s Via Concorde and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, causing the area to be disconnected for five consecutive days. The staff found that the optical fiber that was bitten by mice could not be repaired and could only lay new optical fiber.
Eternal Trash in the Eternal City

  Rome’s garbage crisis has long been a source of anger among the city’s residents and an embarrassment to the municipality. Large amounts of garbage attract not only rats, but also seagulls, wild boars, and even wolves that hunt wild boar.
  The town of Malagrotta, located on the western outskirts of Rome, was once one of the largest landfill sites in Europe. The landfill was ordered to close in August 2013 due to the damage it caused to the surrounding environment. This began Rome’s “garbage crisis”, and a “garbage emergency” breaks out in Rome every few months. The garbage removal company AMA also often refuses to transport the city’s garbage to landfills, incinerators or recyclers at reasonable prices, citing problems such as equipment failure and lack of space.
  Failure to solve Rome’s garbage problem was an important reason why former mayor Virginia Raggi lost re-election. Raggi, of the populist Five Star Movement party, won election as mayor of Rome in 2016 on the slogan “Make Rome more liveable”. As a result, citizens pay high household waste disposal fees and garbage-strewn streets remain unimproved. In October 2018, large-scale protests broke out in Rome, with citizens accusing garbage of turning the city into a sewer.

  The last straw for former Mayor Virginia Raggi was feral pigs attracted by trash. In a video that went viral on social media in May 2021, a woman was “harassed” and besieged by six wild boars in the parking lot of Rome’s Formello shopping mall. She was so frightened that she dropped her shopping bags and ran away. The largest local farmers’ union organization claims that there may be more than 2.3 million wild boars roaming throughout Italy. Incidents of encounters between humans and wild boars occur every 48 hours. “More than a quarter of Italian adults have seen a wild boar with their own eyes.”
  A furious Raggi accused the local government of Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, of being responsible for the appearance of “massive and out-of-control wild boar”, but the struggle did not reverse the electoral defeat.
  In 2021, Roberto Gualtieri, the former Italian Minister of Economy and Finance and a member of the Democratic Party, also made the garbage problem in Rome a core issue in his campaign for mayor of Rome. He promised to clean up the city by Christmas that year, hire a new set of workers and lobby the government for extra funding.

  After being elected mayor, the 55-year-old Gualtieri immediately announced a 40 million euro plan, claiming to clean up the capital “within 60 days.” He said it was the capital’s “first step in restarting”. The citizens of Rome soon discovered that the new mayor’s promises were not fulfilled.
  More than a year into his job, Gualtieri’s plan to clean up and rebuild Rome has shown little to no results. In June last year, a fire broke out at one of Malagrotta’s last remaining private waste treatment plants, burning thousands of plastic bags, tires and boxes for several days. The rising mushroom cloud could be seen miles away, and acrid thick smoke soon enveloped the sky over Rome.
  The fire brought most of Rome’s garbage disposal to a standstill, turning an already thorny garbage disposal problem into an emergency crisis. Four days after the fire, there were 2,500 tons of garbage on the streets of Rome that could not be collected.
  Since the garbage treatment plant that suffered the fire will not be able to resume operations until at least 2026, the Rome city government has to transport the garbage that cannot be processed to the Netherlands, Austria and other EU countries.

A wild boar roams the streets of Rome, Italy

  There may be more than 2.3 million wild boars roaming throughout Italy, and encounters between humans and wild boars occur every 48 hours.

  According to the Financial Times, Gualtieri has signed long-term contracts with public utility companies in Amsterdam and Bologna and plans to spend 100 million euros to remove 460,000 tons of garbage every year. The contracts are expected to run until 2026, until Roma has the means to fully dispose of its own waste.
A recycling culture that’s hard to build

  In fact, there is another reason why Rome has to send its waste to other countries for incineration—the plan to burn waste locally is a hot potato for Italian politicians. The plan accelerated the collapse of Mario Draghi’s Italian government cabinet last July. The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party are both strongly opposed to the construction of the power plant, and Gualtieri, who is running for mayor, is also among the opponents.
  However, the desperate mayor Gualtieri decided to support the garbage incineration plan instead. His new plan is to promote the construction of a waste-to-energy plant in the south of Rome, which can burn more than one-third of Rome’s current total annual garbage.
  The mayor believes that once fully operational, the new power plant will have a waste treatment capacity of 600,000 tons per year, almost twice that of the only operating waste-to-energy plant in the Lazio region. At the same time, charges for bins will be reduced by at least 20%, and waste collection and cleaning levels in the capital will be significantly improved.
  But many warned Gualtieri that the fight against Rome’s garbage-strewn streets was doomed to failure. Because not all garbage is suitable for incineration, a more fundamental solution relies on Rome’s garbage disposal agencies and ordinary citizens to jointly establish a recycling culture.
  Rome’s recycling rate is only 43%, well below the national average of 63%. Smaller cities in the north, such as Treviso, have increased their recycling rates to 4/5.
  Part of the reason for Rome’s lagging recycling culture is that the AMA, the company responsible for Rome’s public waste disposal, has been slow to act. The company was taken over by the mafia for a long time until 2014. After the government purged the mafia, the company remained mismanaged, had five CEOs in seven years, and failed to allocate sufficient resources to build citywide recycling infrastructure.
  Of course, blaming all problems on AMA will not help improve the problem. Romans are used to complaining about the AMA and tourists, but in fact, a large amount of garbage is produced by Roman citizens themselves. They throw fast-food bags out of car windows, leave cigarette butts and wrappers on the sidewalk, or leave empty plastic water bottles behind them. During the coronavirus pandemic, when tourism came to a complete halt, Rome’s garbage problem continued unabated.
  After all, Rome’s garbage wasn’t built in a day.