Waste and the (Eternal) City

Dipl.-Ing.(TU) Werner P. Bauer

I recently referred to the conspicuous cleanliness in some cities in northern Italy and the culture of drinking espresso in porcelain cups in the bar and not to take them "to go” in oneway cups. I am glad, that Prof. Ing. Mario Grosso from WtERT Italy adds his view of the overall Italian situation in the following lines.

Dear friends of WtERT,
Even though people probably still think about Naples when it comes to a solid waste emergency in Italy, the real hotspot has recently shifted to Rome and the Lazio region. Following the closure of the mega-landfill in Malagrotta back in 2013, the region has struggled to find its way towards a modern and advanced management system, leaving it among the worst performing regions in Italy. The current situation is the result of an explosive mix of bad technological choices, strong opposition to any new waste treatment plant by the local population and mysterious fires periodically affecting the facilities. Another impediment to timely and effective action is the propensity of elected officials to avoid making big decisions within their term of office. Lazio region is mainly based on poorly performing mechanical biological treatment (MBT) facilities for processing the residual waste. This means that 600,000 tonnes year−1 of waste are regularly shipped to other regions or even abroad. For example, some waste is sent to waste-to-energy (WTE) plants in the Netherlands, via a long journey by train, both expensive and environmentally impacting.
I had the chance to participate at a conference in one of the universities in Rome, where the status of waste management in Lazio was discussed, together with prospects for the future. It was made clear that the WTE plant is only one of the pieces of a more complex puzzle. The conference was suddenly interrupted by some citizens bursting into the room to protest against the WTE plant. They unrolled a long banner in front of the speakers’ desk reading ‘Incineration environmental crime!’ The lack of meaningful citizen involvement in the planning process and the prospect for reduce property values in the vicinity of the proposed plant were other protestor complaints, along with more set forth in a new pamphlet.
But let us elaborate a bit more on the ‘environmental crime’ complaint. To me, an environmental crime is what has been committed in the Niger Delta in Africa during decades of oil extraction in an extremely sensitive environment, or the pollution of groundwater with heavy metals that has affected some parts of the United States. Likewise, regarding waste management, the discharge of 8 million tonnes of plastic waste into the oceans every year could be described as an environmental crime. I hardly comprehend how the construction of state-of-the-art WTE plant for fulfilling the real and near-term needs of a region that has been struggling for so many years to properly handle its solid waste can be classified as an environmental crime. Any Life Cycle Assessment study that would compare the current shipment of residual waste to other countries to local processing and disposal would surely show the environmental and economic benefits and sustainability of local solutions. Those zero-waste advocates who envisage a system without any need of thermal treatment would either result in generating a number of streams of low quality materials not fit for any recycling solution and/or require the expansion of (not end to) landfilling; tertium non datur. A complete redesign of how our society and economy produces our goods, our packaging and our electronic devices is a noble goal, but it is irresponsible for city governments to wait for that new world to meaningfully reduce the flow of waste.
In lieu of the above, certain strategies need to be put in place when facing discussion with opponents to WTE plants. They start from the involvement of all stakeholders from the very beginning of the planning process, then continue by keeping all interested parties involved, not solely the technical experts, but rather opening it to a multidisciplinary approach, where for example social scientists are also a crucial part of the story. This means that the traditional waste management community must also open its view beyond its technical focus.
Mario Grosso
Assessment on WAste and
REsources Research Group
Politecnico di Milano, Italy
P.S. Please find here the original publication
I am very grateful for these comments, because they show plausibly what contradictory legislation and irresponsible communication in Europe about WtE do to anxious people. We should not be surprised if local politicians are unsure about a technology that is not considered sustainable in the EU (read more about EU Taxonomy)

Werner Bauer
Vice President of GWC


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