Naples Trash Trauma: Psychologists to Counsel Italians on Garbage Crisis

By and Josh Ward

They've been to Rwanda, Kosovo and other disaster areas. Now, a group of crisis psychologists is on its way to Naples. It's all part of Silvio Berlusconi's army of volunteers known as the "Angels of Garbage."

Few would deny that living side-by-side with stinking, oozing piles of garbage for months on end makes life more difficult. Even in the normally chaotic southern Italian city of Naples, garbage-induced temper tantrums have periodically resulted in trash piles being set on fire -- and the firemen who respond to the call are then pelted with detritus.

Help is on the way. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi not only pledged on Tuesday that the problem would be solved within two weeks, he also is sending a thousand volunteers to Naples to teach the city about the importance of separating recyclables out of their garbage. Among those volunteers will be dozens of psychologists from an organization specially trained for missions in disaster areas.

"We’re not talking about psychology in the way that many people understand it," Luigi Ranzato, president of the group Psicologi per i Popoli, which is sending the psychologists, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Instead, we will be there to try to help introduce a sensibility about garbage disposal to, for example, the old and the young. They need to learn how to separate the garbage so that it doesn’t become an inconvenience for their daily life.“

'Angels of Garbage'

The plan is for teams of psychologists from Psicologi per i Popoli (Psychologists for the People), a group based in faraway northern Italy, to rotate through Naples on a weekly basis until September -- "nothing like a military landing," the group's Web site says reassuringly. They will be joined by volunteers from some 25 other charity and help organizations, including Boy Scouts, volunteer fire departments and the Red Cross. They are all part of what Berlusconi has termed his "angels of garbage."

The sheer dimensions of the problem facing Naples and the surrounding region requires such heavenly help. Mountains of garbage have lined streets in the Campania region since January, when trash collectors stopped picking up garbage because all of the region's landfills were full. Efforts to reopen them were blocked by at-times violent protests from locals.

Until recently, all efforts to solve the problem had proven fruitless. But Berlusconi, who took over from Romano Prodi as Italian prime minister in April, made fixing the Neapolitan trash troubles a priority of his first months in office. He has forced open landfills and used the army to clear away protestors. Campania is also sending 700 tons of rubbish a day to the northern German city of Hamburg for incineration -- a temporary solution until more incinerators can be built near Naples.

'A More Hygienic Way'

Still, officials estimate that 18,000 tons of rubbish remain on the streets in the Campania region. That is, though, 2,000 tons less than last week and on Tuesday, Berlusconi said "we are moving towards the final solution to the problem," according to the Italian news agency Ansa. He also accused the Naples trash collection firm Asia of not working hard enough to fix the problem. Pointing out that he and his Waste Emergency Undersecretary Guido Bertolaso work through the weekends, he accused Asia staff "going to the seaside on Sunday."

It is, however, the deployment of psychologists -- particularly from so far away -- that has raised the most eyebrows in Italy. Southerners have long been sensitive of northern Italians lecturing them about lifestyle and efficiency. The Italian press this week has been full of complaints wondering why there aren't psychologists from the south available to serve in Italy. "Psychologists from Campania can do the same thing," complained the head of a local psychologist association. Many have been wondering why psychologists are necessary at all.

Ranzato is fully aware of the critique. "We aren't there to teach people how to do something," he said carefully. "We will try to use pedagogical methods to instill among children -- using games and such -- a more hygienic way of doing things."

Ranzato's group is designed to help people who have lived through natural or manmade disasters. His psychologists have helped plane crash and earthquake survivors and were also deployed following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. Kosovo and Rwanda have also benefited from the help of Psicologi per i Popoli psychologists.

But is Naples really a disaster area? "First, you need to think of what happens with all that garbage in an urban environment and the hygienic danger when the temperature climbs into the 40s (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit)," Ranzato said. "Second, it can also be a community catastrophe. The community doesn't know how to react to this kind of situation."

Choked by Waste

The prime minister has made it clear that trash sorting has to be high on the list of antidotes to the region's garbage woes. Naples has been choked by waste over and over in recent decades, partly due to mismanagement, corruption and mafia involvement in trash pick-up, but also because of Neapolitans' refusal to sort their trash. In late May, Berlusconi's government even threatened to have the army take over trash sorting facilities. "What is at stake are the basic rules to avoid slipping from democracy to anarchy," Berlusconi said.

But stopping that slip into chaos might have to wait just a bit longer. Berlusconi's "Angels of Garbage" haven't yet arrived, and Ranzato says his psychologists haven't begun working in Naples either. "We were supposed to start in late June," he said. "But you know how the concept of time in Italy has its own logic…"

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