Posts Tagged ‘Italy


bad things happen to good garbage

When they started digging for the landfill I said to Sherm, “Ain’t that where we used to went skating?” “Still do,” said Sherm. “You ever seen them dig a landfill except where there’s groundwater?” Sure enough by July the Jack Wells Brook looked like swill. Sure enough by August there wasn’t a minnow left in Eagle Pond. Where was the state water folks when the brains was handed out? Sherm says they was out behind the Grange getting paid off.”

Donald Hall reports this story in his book Eagle Pond as a representative example of New Hampshire country conversation. It has a lovely local twang, but the events it describes have taken place a million times, all over the country and probably just about everywhere else. There is an intimate connection between garbage and corruption. Not so much the corruption of the garbage itself, unfortunately. The process of biodegradation, no matter how ardently hoped-for by all of us ordinary householders who put our wishful faith in it, is significantly retarded by current landfill disposal practices. Organic corruption is curbed significantly. To make up for it, there’s a lot of human resources corruption, involving the people paid to ensure proper handling of the waste and then paid again to grease the skids for a little extra profit to the people getting paid to do the proper handling.

improper garbage handling

improper garbage handling

The most high-profile stories of garbage-related corruption that have come to light include these lurid tales:

—  A mafia cartel with its origin in Yonkers controlled commercial garbage collection in New York City and outlying areas in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Rick Cowan and Doug Century, Take-Down: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire);

— A recent garbage showdown in Naples involved the accumulation of household waste in the streets because the landfills were full (again) as well as the dumping of toxic waste all over the surrounding region of Campania (see Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System);

— The passage of the RCRA in 1976, which controlled the dumping of toxics, sparked a wave of organized illegal disposal and stockpiling in eastern New Jersey and New York (see Alan Block and Frank Scarpitti, Poisoning for Profit: The Mafia and Toxic Waste in America).

And then there’s the story of Browning-Ferris, which gave away waste oil mixed with various toxics to southern counties, also in the 1970s, so that it could be used to lay dust on unpaved country roads. This is a minor story, comparatively speaking, but there’s something so brazen about it, so light-of-day, it deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Lest we think that this is a thing of the past, there’s James Galante, who got one conviction for tax evasion in 1999 and another one in 2008 for racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and additional tax shenanigans. Up until that last conviction, he had the controlling interest in 25 garbage-related businesses that held most of the disposal contracts for western Connecticut as well as Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.

And then there are all the international scandals—ocean tankers dumping toxic sludge of uncertain origin in poor neighborhoods in Ivory Coast and other African nations, 90 shipping containers with contaminated recyclables from Britain delivered to Latin American ports—which don’t actually look all that different from the legal movement of toxics.

Garbage is not unique as a temptation to augment one’s income by cutting corners, it appears. Neither is it unique in attracting organized crime. Robert Kelly explains in his book The Upperworld and the Underworld: Case Studies in Racketeering and Business Infiltrations in the United States that there is a range of commercial enterprises that have historically been beset by those inclined to bribery and violence in the furtherance of their material longings. This includes construction, pizza parlors, and waterfront businesses, as well as the full range of garbage-related enterprises. Industries in which many small businesses offer low-margin services are especially susceptible to racketeering, Kelly points out. It helps if there’s a labor union to bend to one’s criminal purposes.

But the most interesting contributing factor is the existence of regulation.  The consequence of regulation goes a step beyond the well-known fact that crime is created by the law that makes it so. Before the early 1970s, it was lawful to dump industrial wastes freely into air and water, although it certainly wasn’t sanitary and the dumpers would have been pretty well situated to know that. As soon as the RCRA was passed into law, dumping industrial wastes became a crime, which exposed the guilty to (relatively small) fines. Similarly, Europe has stringent regulations that say toxic wastes cannot exported out of the country in which the waste is created and they can certainly not be exported to places that don’t have the same regulations. By definition, sending a shipment of used European refrigerators to Africa is a crime. Sending a shipment of used American refrigerators to Africa is just business as usual, because the US doesn’t have the same export restrictions.

But something else happens, besides the mere change in status of the activity. Regulations make it more attractive to cheat, because they typically make it more expensive to properly treat or dispose of waste. And that means that the profit margin associated with the improper treatment or disposal of waste increases, often sufficiently to catch the attention of organized crime. In the first place, it becomes attractive to charge the going rates for proper disposal of a vast range of poisons and then just dump it in the landfill  or stockpile it in an abandoned warehouse or let it run into the nearest stream when nobody is looking or set it on fire or lay it under an overpass under cover of darkness or wait for rain and open up the spigot of your tanker truck as you drive along the interstate. And then secondly, if you lower your prices just a tiny bit under the going rate, you can undercut your honest competitor and still make a handsome profit. Block and Scarpitti’s Poisoning for Profit may be read as an indictment of widespread corruption but it’s also a tips-and-tricks sort of “Poisoning for Dummies”. The most brazen scam I have heard of was perpetrated in Italy: the Camorra would take loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dump it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collect the subsidies), and then sell the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits to grocery stores (at decent prices).

However, all of the experts on organized crime say that it exists only where there is widespread collusion by authorities and other bystanders. And I suspect that, in addition, garbage is especially attractive as merchandise because the rest of us find it so difficult to pay attention.



“The most concrete emblem of every economic cycle is the dump. Accumulating everything that ever was, dumps are the true aftermath of consumption, something more than the mark every product leaves on the surface of the earth. The south of Italy is the end of the line for the dregs of production, useless leftovers, and toxic waste. If all the trash that, according to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, escapes official inspection were collected in one place, it would form a mountain weighing 14 million tons and rising 47,900 feet from a base of three hectares. Mont Blanc rises 15,780 feet, Everest 29015. “

This is Roberto Saviano, in Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. Organized crime, it quickly becomes apparent from Saviano’s account of the havoc the Camorra wreaks on Campania, is a misnomer. “Organized” is really not the word for anarchy piled on top of blood thirst, outsize machismo married to insane greed, blinding pride, temper tantrums, and an endless supply of artillery.

But what is perhaps most instructive (and chilling) about Saviano’s story is how difficult it is to distinguish the various criminal endeavors of the Camorra from their business enterprises. Clearly, the crime bosses don’t make a distinction between business and crime–they just have a slightly more inventive way to get business done, a few more options when it comes to making themselves competitive. And that’s one reason why the trash business has been so attractive to them.

According to Saviano, the Camorra, which dominates the construction industry, routinely mixes toxic waste into cement and then builds apartments, offices, houses, schools with it.

The Camorra takes loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dumping it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collecting the subsidies), and then selling the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits.

Graves are turned every 40 years in Italy, apparently, and the Camorra accepts payment to dispose of the bodies and then dumps them into the fields around Caserta. Teenagers dig through the charnels in search of skulls to sell on flea markets.

And all of this in their own back yards. Any land not already used for some other purpose in the countryside around Naples is liable to be used to dump waste, without licenses or any kind of environmental provisions against leaching or outgassing. To reduce volume and allow for additional dumping, kids are paid to burn the accumulating mounds. When all the combustible matter is gone, houses are built on top and sold to low-income families below market.

In the meantime, all of the household waste from Naples and Campania now gets on the train to Germany.

It’s a frightening tale and hope in very short supply.


Field Trip

Garbage Field TripEvery day, 500 tons of trash from the Campania region in southern Italy get to go on a European vacation, destination Hamburg, in northern Germany. That’s 55 train cars worth of trash crossing the Alps every day, making the almost 1200-mile trip in just about 44 hours. The arrangement is meant to continue for 11 weeks. A lot of the traveling trash is compostible waste–kitchen scraps, restaurant leftovers, and so forth. A lot of the rest is recyclable, including plastics. The incinerator in Hamburg separates out the stuff that doesn’t burn, but the rest of it goes up in smoke.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but it’s commonplace at home. The situation in the U.S. is equally bizzarre, except that it goes on by design rather than misadventure, day after day, indefinitely. And the trash doesn’t hop the train but rides first class in 18-wheelers, guzzling gas. Of all the states in the union, 47 export garbage and 45 import it. Some of it comes from Canada even. which has decided that landfilling the stuff is too unhealthy while incinerating it at home is a lot more expensive than paying American landfill operators to bury it in Michigan. In the northeast especially, garbage is “exported” almost without exception as local landfills have closed, and nobody is ready to give permission for a new one in their own backyard.

Garbage TruckNot only does the stuff get carried all over the country, but pretty much every community is on its own looking for a place to stash their castoffs. As a result, the network of routes described by all this trash looks like a vast spider web woven by a drunken spider with no sense of geometry and no talent or inclination for housekeeping. The garbage trucks routinely pass by many active landfills on their way to distant destinations. (The scholar Benjamin Miller, who wrote Fat of the Land, a fabulous study of the sorry history of New York landfill, is working on the transportation angle. He was kind enough to show me a picture of that crazy web, which is to come out in a new book soon. )

The whole thing made economic sense under two conditions:

1. low transportation costs, by which it can be cheaper to truck trash vast distances to a cut-rate dump.

2. artificially depressed “tipping fees,” as the dump charges are called. Lifetime costs of operating and monitoring landfills and eventually converting them to usable space are generally not calculated into the price.

A study done before the price of gas took off estimated that banning interstate trade in garbage would lead to a total loss of $3.8 billion, as some waste haulers and landfill operators would see their revenues decline while others would make hay and some proportion of citizens would see their garbage collection fees go up, while the rest might catch a break. (See the abstract or a writeup of the study)

However the math was done, it would be different now of course, with gas prices out of all proportion to where they used to be. But more importantly, there’s a logical impossibility in the notion that we’d be worse off if we didn’t carry garbage all over the country. By this kind of analysis, if we made less garbage, there’d be losses in the system. However, I have to think we’d come out way ahead on the whole. And coming up with local garbage disposal methods would also have to be an overall gain, especially if we factor environmental damage from trucking into the equation and sift out the special interest rhetoric.

But of course that might just require an end to just burying it all whosale.


Garbage Riddle

Garbage pickup day in Venice is something of a minor tourist entertainment. A friend sent a report to me last year, complete with pictures. The system is ingenious on a small scale: residents set their garbage in the streets, neatly bagged, in expectation of the arrival of the garbage barge. A garbage collector gathers all the bags into a little wire cage on wheels and trundles it under the arm that swings out from the barge. The barge operator grabs the cage, hoists it aloft, and then opens the bottom, so all the bags tumble into the hold. That’s the end of the known fate of Venetian garbage.

Photos by Hans Bertens

Like garbage everywhere, garbage in Venice goes “poof” on collection day. When you search on the Internet, you find plenty of pictures posted by tourists–oh look! how cute!–but nothing about what happens next.

I did find out that Venice doesn’t treat its sewage, flushing everything straight into the lagoon. I have to confess that I didn’t like Venice very much to start with. It’s a fabulous place in theory, but in practice there are too many tourists, both in absolute and relative numbers, turning the whole thing into a kind of Disney confection grafted onto an astounding historical reality. Anyhow, this little fact about the sewage just lifted the experience to a different order of unpleasantness. No wonder the residents are leaving.

Sacca San Mattia, Venice

Sacca San Mattia, Venice

On the ferry to Burano, I did have a minor revelation,  spotting something that looked an awful lot like landfill to my knowing eye. More searching on the Internet shows that I saw the Sacca San Mattia landfill, which is supposed to accept only inert waste (such as demolition debris). “Supposed to” has a special ring in Italy, as witness the situation in Naples, but it nevertheless suggests that household trash goes somewhere else–at least officially.

So the riddle remains unsolved and I commend myself to those privileged few who know what happens to Venice’s garbage.


Fortified Mozzarella

The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reports that the Napels garbage crisis is half solved. That is, trash is being collected in the city itself, after months when household waste simply accumulated in the streets. Hotels are welcoming tourists once again.

A provisional landfill has been opened–“provisional” presumably meaning that it is not properly engineered to contain contaminants. Some trash is being sent to Germany, after being separated locally. An incinerator is under construction and might start to make short shrift with Naples’ municipal produce in a year and a half.

But in the suburbs the accumulated trash from earlier months lines the streets. In the dark hours of the night, garbage trucks still dump toxic industrial waste from northern Italy and other parts of Europe among the buffalo farms and apricot orchards, as they have been doing for 25 years. But not to worry. Government inspections certify the mozzarella as within allowable dioxin limits. Buon appetito!

Update: March 26, 2008 — As you might expect, the more we hear about the toxic waste abutting the buffalo farms from whence emerges our mozzarella, the less appealing the notion of ingesting such a delicate puffball of snow-white cheese. In recent months, the New York Times reports, the sale of mozzarella has declined by 40%, and inspections have in fact turned up some cheese exceeding the dioxin level considered acceptable by the Italian government, whatever that might be. The author of the NYT article speculates that the politicians might finally act to clean up Campania under pressure of falling mozzarella sales. The world is a very strange place–who would have guessed it was possible to force a little bit of change by spurning the caprese salad?

People all over Campania have set the piles ablaze, out of protest.Update: May 9, 2008 – The European Union is sueing Italy over its garbage practices, charging that the country “had failed to meet its obligations to collect and dispose of its rubbish,” as the New York Times put it. Meanwhile, the temperatures are rising and the smell is getting worse all over Campania. People have started setting the accumulating piles ablaze in recent weeks, out of protest and to try to reduce the public health threat posed by festering waste all over the streets in gigantic piles.

Update: May 25, 2008 – A few days ago, the papers reported that Berlusconi, newly re-installed at the helm of the Italian sort-of-government, has announced that he is really going to get tough on the garbage crisis and illegal immigration. Interesting combination of priorities, no? Even more interesting is his proposed solution: use the army to squash all protests against the siting of new garbage facilities. It’s not news that Berlusconi is a fascist, but I don’t know that he has displayed his colors in such an effective single brush stroke before.

July 2018
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