Trashy Trade Naples Makes a Dirty Deal with Germany

Italy's trash problem isn't new -- which is why the country began exporting thousands of tons of garbage every day. Much of it ends up in Germany.

By Michael Braun in Rome


Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has an awkward problem. In Naples, the trash is piling up -- and all of Europe is pressuring him to find a solution. The trash is no longer just blocking the streets of the southern Italian city, but it is also being exported to other countries on a massive scale, mainly to Germany.

Prodi's frustration is palpable. He says he wants to end "once and for all" a situation that for the last 14 years has returned again and again. Above all he would like Italy to be completely "self-sufficient in terms of garbage disposal." In other words, Italy must find an internal solution to its trash problem -- without help from abroad.

But he has said that before. Almost a year ago, Prodi said there needed to be an end to the "trains of shame." The reference was to the trains that have been heading north to German incinerators for the last seven years -- each one made up of 22 cars loaded down with 500 to 600 tons of household waste.

The junk exports began in April 2001. Antonio Bassolino, then as now governor of the Campania region, appealed for help from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The goal was to bring the dire trash situation under control. The Germans were only too happy to comply -- while there may not be a single incinerator in Campania, incinerators in Germany are underused.

Secret Mission

Since then, the trains -- operated by the Italian rail subsidiary Ecolog -- have been underway, though not well publicized. The missions are kept largely secret and, officially at least, Ecolog says nothing about its smelly trade with Germany. Italian rail also keeps quiet.

Only on condition of anonymity would an Ecolog manager confirm that two trains full of trash make the trip every day. One-thousand tons of garbage every 24 hours, about a seventh of the 7,200 tons produced daily by Campania. The manager also revealed what the trash export costs the Italian government: between €170 and €200 ($265 and $296) per ton, including transport. Per day, that adds up to around €200,000.

In the beginning, the trains ran to Düsseldorf and Hameln, but today they run a good bit farther. From the Gulf of Naples, some of the trash travels as far as the North Sea coast; other shipments are sent to Saxony. One of the recipients is Remondis, Germany's largest private waste management company. Michael Schneider, a spokesman for Remondis, is almost as discreet as his Italian business partners. He put the daily delivery at "well under 1,000 tons."

'It Is What It Is'

Much of the waste is eliminated by incinerators in the city of Bremenhaven. The garbage is completely separated and everything from leftover food to old sneakers to wine bottles gets chucked in. "For our highly modern facility it's no problem," Schneider says. "And the toxic emissions are low."

It is exactly this kind of business that Prime Minister Prodi would like to see come to an end. The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that Germany is planning a garbage incinerator specifically for waste coming from the Campania region. The piece said that Remondis is planning to build a new facility on the Luxembourg border to enable the import of garbage from Naples and surrounding municipalities. Company spokesman Schneider called the report "completely untrue." The garbage crisis in southern Italy, he continued, is only a temporary phenomenon.

But for a temporary problem, seven years is a long time. It is also cost effective. The €200 per ton it would cost to ship the garbage out of Italy would be cheaper than the €290 the government is currently paying for emergency trash disposal in Campania. Such a smelly export, however, would be a graphic illustration of Campania's -- and Italy's -- inability to solve day-to-day problems. The environmental group Legambiente is demanding that such garbage exports come to an end. Instead, the group says, the country needs to introduce modern disposal methods including recycling, incinerators in the region and new compost facilities.

Until they have been built, the government would like to see the garbage stay closer to home. On Wednesday, Prodi invited the governors of all Italian regions to an emergency summit. But his plea for emergency help fell on deaf ears -- Northern Italy has no intention of accepting garbage from Naples.

It looks like the garbage trains, for the time being at least, will keep on heading north.

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