A novel approach to Palermo’s rubbish problem …

31 October, 2013

IMG_3811Palermo has a problem with rubbish.  A big problem.  It’s often the first thing visitors to the city talk about: skips full to overflowing with garbage in the streets of the city centre and piles of rubbish building up on the pavement.

It’s not that the problem of rubbish is peculiar to Palermo.  The amount of waste, much of it non-recyclable, being discarded by industrial societies all over the world is increasing at an alarming rate.  Rubbish is a massive problem world-wide.  But you don’t expect to be confronted with it quite so starkly in a modern European city – and there’s no good reason why you should be.

But there are reasons why you are, in Palermo; some of them quite bizarre.  Both the reasons, and the novel solution recently adopted by one of my neighbours, are very Sicilian.

IMG_3825Until it recently went into receivership, a company called Amia was responsible for Palermo’s rubbish collection.  Descriptions of the  mismanagement and corruption that went on within Amia read like works of implausible fiction.  In the end, the company was unable to pay either its employees or its creditors: it owed more than 100 million euros.

Among its many questionable activities had been the payment each year of millions of euros to consultants of dubious connection, and the funding of lavish trips to Abu Dhabi made, almost every month, by company president, Enzo Galioto – who is now a Senator of the Republic of Italy.  This is where Amia’s activities become quite bizarre.  The trips  were made because Amia was, supposedly, advising Abu Dhabi on the management of differentiated rubbish schemes, even though, at the time, Palermo didn’t have a differentiated rubbish scheme itself.  Even now, at least in my part of the city, it still doesn’t have one.  Recently, a well-known author described his return to Palermo, after living in the north for several years.  The first thing he noticed when he arrived at the airport was a rubbish bin with a lid divided into sections: plastic, glass and paper.  “How Palermo has changed!”, he said to himself.  Then, as he went to deposit his plastic cup in the bin, he noticed that under the carefully divided lid there was just one big plastic bag.  Everything was going in together.  “Welcome to Palermo; nothing has changed at all!”.  Perhaps the final absurdity of the Abu Dhabi expenditure, though, was the 30,000 euro sponsorship of a boat in the F1 Powerboat World Championships:  while  rubbish continued to build up in the streets of Palermo, and the company’s debts steadily mounted, Amia’s logo was speeding across the waters of the Persian Gulf for all the world to see.

But Amia and the political system can’t be blamed entirely for the city’s rubbish problem:  the people themselves are partly to blame.   There seems to be a particular mentality at work.  In general, Palermitani seem  extremely house proud, and yet they readily throw their rubbish into the street.  The street, it seems, is not their responsibility.  One local commentator discussing the rubbish problem has said:  “The problem with Southern Italy and Sicily is that we do not identify with the State…. However, we do need to build some serious civil conscience, otherwise we will keep having these and other problems over and over…. Stop thinking it is all our politicians’ fault, it is our fault too!  The politicians are just a mirror of who we are as people”.

Not everyone, of course, has this mentality.  One who doesn’t is my neighbour, who, after much provocation, finally decided to take the matter into his own hands.

It all started with the erection of a block fence around a building site at the end of a square in via Argenteria Vecchia, just around the corner from Piazza Garafello.  No sooner had the fence been erected than piles of rubbish began to build up at its base, even though there was a long line of rubbish skips just around the corner in Piazza Garafello.  Everything went onto the pile: kitchen garbage, boxes, old clothes, appliances, building material – everything.  Several residents complained regularly to the authorities, and from time to time the pile of rubbish was removed.  But always, within a few days, it was back again.  Then one night, someone set fire to it.  In the morning, the fire was still smouldering, releasing toxic, foul smelling fumes into the air.  Enough was enough.

IMG_3830There is a concentration of jewellers in this part of the city – in just one block there are twenty or thirty jewellery shops and gold and silver workshops, possibly more.  My neighbour is a goldsmith with a workshop in the square where the rubbish was building up.  After the episode of the burning rubbish, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.  No more reporting to the authorities.   He made a simple little shrine and placed a statue of the Madonna inside it.  Then he whitewashed the wall, which had been blackened by smoke from the fire, affixed the shrine to the centre of the wall, and waited.

More than a week has now passed and although rubbish is gradually beginning to appear in front of the adjoining wall, the area in front of the shrine has remained absolutely pristine.  The power of the Madonna reigns supreme.

So far the plan has worked.  It will be interesting to see for how long it continues to do so.

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8 Responses to “A novel approach to Palermo’s rubbish problem …”

  1. Charles Robinson Says:

    Great story and wonderful lateral thinking by your goldsmith neighbour. Perhaps a worthy opponent for the esteemed Senator Galioto in the next election?


  2. What is it that people think it is someone else’s problem once outside the door. Unbelievable. And walking past it – are their eyes heavenward?!

    • kateludlow Says:

      It is strange. Sometimes I think it’s a circular thing – if the rubbish were cleared efficiently, people would be more careful about what they put out and where they leave it. Another thing I haven’t yet worked out is why rubbish will build up in one street, while in another, just around the corner, it never does. Many thanks for the comment.

  3. Louise F Says:

    How enterprising of your neighbour! Truth is indeed stranger than fiction or perhaps the Amia people came to believe their own fiction was true. I assume no-one has been done for fraud yet! It reminded me of the very grim film about Naples’ rubbish problem.

    • kateludlow Says:

      In fact there have been convictions against both Galioto and Amia’s ex- Director General, as well as several others, but the convictions have been appealed. I don’t know where the appeals are up to. Truth, or what I take to be the truth, often does seem stranger than fiction here! And Palermo and Naples do share a certain amount of grimness – but they share other more positive things as well.

  4. Sally Says:

    Maybe there is a God …

  5. tombritsccom Says:

    Reblogged this on Campervan farewell tour of the European Union and commented:
    Great story – I wish I’d read it before leaving Palermo, I’d have checked if the shrine is still rubbish free.


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