There is no Copy and Paste Solution - Rome Must Get Back to Basics with its Waste Management Policy

A few days ago, ISWA President Antonis Mavropoulos was interviewed by Il Messaggero journalist Mauro Evangelisti about the waste management problems in Rome. The ISWA president explained that the problems in Rome are the result of governance failures. He stressed that a new serious, systematic effort to build trust with the citizens is the main requirement to restart the system. Finally, he highlighted the importance of organic fraction recycling and proper waste treatment and disposal as integral components of any sustainable waste management system.

3 Apr 2019 -

Mauro Evangelisti (ME): Is it possible to manage the waste of Rome using only source separation methods?


Antonis Mavropoulos (AM): Separate collection is important, but it cannot be the only solution. In a city like Rome, you need an overall system that includes recycling (including the organic fraction),treatment and disposal facilities for the non-recyclable streams. When we say 43% separate waste collection, we need to understand how much of that quantity is actually recycled and re-enters the supply chain and what happens with the rest (residuals). We need to understand that high recycling rates are meaningful only if they are of high purity. For example, only about 30-35% of the plastic stream can usually be recycled. On the one hand, it is therefore necessary to profoundly improve the quality of the material collected with the separate collection, on the other it is necessary to understand that there is a fraction that cannot be recovered and must be managed with proper treatment and disposal.


ME: Should we focus on landfills or incinerators?
AM: First, we must recycle what can be recycled, and especially in Rome the recycling of organic fraction is necessary to reduce the waste volume and the environmental impacts of waste treatment and disposal. Then we must treat the rest, and finally we must dispose of the residual stream. There is no solution that works for all territories. In areas where there is a lot of space available landfills are still the main solution, but in a city like Rome, where land is scarce and occupied for other uses, incinerators can be part of the solution too. Rome had the largest rate of landfill in Europe until 2013 (now my city, Athens has that record). It was closed because it did not cover the minimum requirements of the EU Sanitary Landfill Directive, mainly because the landfill received untreated raw waste. But as it becomes obvious now, no alternatives were implemented, and the results are visible. So, today Rome has one of the most expensive waste management systems in Europe, offering very low value for money to its citizens.


ME: What should Rome do?

AM: First of all, we need to understand that when we are talking about waste management, we are talking about public health and environmental protection. We are talking for a system that is primarily social, although it also has technical, financial and legal dimensions. The failures in Rome are governance failures, so we need to regain the trust of citizens. Without it, there is nothing we can do. We can call the best experts from EU and the world, but please remember that Italy, despite the problems in part of the country, has always been a model for other countries for waste management. Italy has a huge knowhow and many great experts to tackle the problem. What I propose is to form a task force to prepare a roadmap for the redesign of the system. ISWA’s Italian National Member, ATIA-ISWA, are ready to help and dedicate time and effort. It will take two or three years, but the decisions taken should then also be supported by politics. We should focus on source separation and organic fraction recycling, and on the purity of recyclables, but as I said, this is not enough. We need an integrated system that will deal with both the recyclable and the non-recyclable fraction, including a final disposal area.


ME: Does the fact that China no longer accepts plastic recycled material make things worse?

AM: ISWA has been warning the industry about this problem since 2012.  The overdependence on a single market notwithstanding, exports to China (and not only) were ethically questionable because Western countries knew that a lot of the exported recyclables were being converted into cheap fuel for the Chinese industry, with huge environmental impacts. Now China has decided to stop receiving low quality plastics in order to reduce the relevant pollution  and to build its domestic recycling industry. So, in Europe now, we need to improve our chances of recovering the plastic materials, but at the same time, we need to build new infrastructure to manage what can no longer be exported, including treatment and disposal plants for what cannot be recovered. I want to be clear: it is necessary to improve source separation but a continuous increase in diverted quantities without high purity is meaningless and misleading. We need to focus on the purity of recyclables and redesign our source separation systems accordingly. Moreover, it is also necessary to cooperate  with the manufacturers of materials and products, especially the plastic ones, and demand design for recycling, eco-design and modular design, so that it becomes much easier for the consumer to recycle.


ME: What is the example of a model city in Europe for waste management? Is Copenhagen a role model as some say?
AM:Copenhagen is a very good example, but before we adopt any example, we have to study the local social, economic, and cultural landscape in detail. You can’t just copy and paste a system, ignoring its background and its own history. Speaking about Italy, in my opinion, a much better- and well-balanced model is that of Milan, an example for all of Southern European cities, especially because it involves the massive recycling of the organic fraction of waste. Rome must have the courage to make brave choices. I realize that it is not easy because the city faces multiple challenges and its infrastructure is aged and in decay. Nonetheless, modernizing Rome’s waste management system could be a great start for the modernization of all the city sectors. It’s about people, not waste.



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