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Thursday 6 May 2021

Recommended Because we refuse to face the problem of waste

Because we refuse to face the problem of waste

Author of the content

The waste affair in Rome is emblematic of the inability of the populist approach to tackle complex problems. According to the populist approach there are always solutions that are "better" from all points of view and for all, only the dishonesty and corruption of the "politicians" prevent us from adopting them; replaced the "corrupt politicians" with the "honest citizens" everything will go well. In the case of waste, the populist approach (which is not the exclusive prerogative of the cinquestelle) relies on an extreme narration of not valid concepts, such as that of the "circular economy". This is transformed from a useful, albeit partial, indication of perspective into a magic formula which - inserted in speeches and documents - transforms waste into "post-consumer material", thus magically solving the problem of their disposal.

The concrete consequences of the application of this approach have been the dismantling of the public waste-to-energy plant in Colleferro, the degradation of the treatment plants in Rome, the inability to identify the sites for service landfills. Having used the huge resources paid by citizens with TARI not to develop an effective separate collection system and an efficient treatment plant system but to support the costs of transporting and disposing of waste elsewhere, the whole system was brought its sealing limits where any malfunction at any point in the process to cause its jamming and devastating consequences: piles of waste on the street and treatment plants transformed into landfills.

The choice (shared by Lazio Region and Capital Rome and by almost all political forces) to renounce the revamping  (restructuring according to the most modern and safe technologies) of the public plant of Colleferro proceeding, instead, to its dismantling is the emblem of the populist approach (and its consequences). According to certified data and evaluated by competent people, modern waste-to-energy plants (plants in which waste is burned to produce heat or energy) do not cause damage to health and have an environmental impact comparable to that of any industrial plant in accordance with the law whose construction is widely accepted. In particular, the adoption of advanced fume control systems allows a reduction of polluting factors far below the legal limits and their constant monitoring. If we then consider the "systemic" effect, the environmental balance of the correct location and construction of a modern waste-to-energy plant is even positive because it reduces the distance (and therefore the emissions) of the means of transport that move waste, because it replaces more polluting plants for the production of energy and because, through its use for district heating, the pollution caused by individual or condominium boilers fueled by fossil fuels decreases. In Sweden and Denmark, which tend not to be considered barbaric countries where the health of citizens is despised, waste-to-energy plants treating just under 600 kg of waste per citizen, while in Italy we do not go much over 100 kg (For further information, see in the article of IlSole24Ore "Waste: Germany at the top for recycling, Northern Europe leader in incinerators").

Rome in the trash
Rome in the trash

It is certainly correct, as on the other hand the European Union has done, to indicate the strategic perspectives of the reduction of the production of waste and the increase of the separate collection aimed at recycling. But even the data of the most advanced experiences tell us that about a third of the waste produced must (and tend to have to) be destined for disposal in any case; that is, either at landfills or enhancement plants.

In addition, the data from international and even sub-national comparisons tell us that, contrary to what the rhetoric of the contrast between separate waste collection and waste-to-energy plants supports, paradoxically it is precisely the realities where energy recovery plants are most widespread those where separate waste collection and recycling have reached the highest levels. Contrary to the model of landfills (which cost) or the hypocritical solution of "export" (which costs even more), the use of waste-to-energy plants is economically profitable and therefore makes available resources that can be used to increase separate collection and recycling. According to the ISPRA report, 38 incineration / valorisation plants are active in Italy, mainly concentrated in Lombardy (13 for a 34,9% share) and Emilia Romagna (8 for a 17,8% share); but Lombardy (with 69,6%) and Emilia Romagna (with 63,8%) are also among the Italian regions with the highest coverage rate of separate waste collection.

Unfortunately, the Lazio region cannot be placed in this virtuous group. With the exceptions of the attempts made by the second Rutelli council in the municipality of Rome and by the Marrazzo council in the Lazio Region, the political management of the various municipal and regional administrations that followed one another (and not only the current ones) was aimed more at evading the problem than to face it. For a certain period, the presence of a large private operator capable of absorbing a large part of the collection in Rome acted both as a lightning rod to concentrate the controversy and as a carpet under which to hide the dust of the decisions not taken. When this possibility no longer existed, the issue re-exploded and was managed with "analgesic" choices (aimed at avoiding pain or problems) by weak administrations or in any case unwilling to take responsibility for clear choices, which therefore preferred the easy way the "export" of waste, charging the costs to the community. Of the 4 plants present in 2012 in Lazio, only the San Vittore plant (in the south of the province of Frosinone) is active, which treats about 350.000 tons with a percentage of 12% compared to the waste produced in the region much lower than the national average of 18 % and at peaks of 40% in Lombardy and 34% in Emilia Romagna. But the percentage of separate collection (45,5%) remains one of the lowest in Italy and at the same time the rates are among the highest: according to the estimates of active citizenship, the cost per family in Lazio is 332 euros per year. compared to 278 euros in Emilia Romagna and 236 euros in Lombardy.

However, it is fair to recognize that, even if it does not involve health risks, and has a positive environmental and economic balance, the construction of waste-to-energy plants produces, in itself, negative effects on the surrounding area both from the point of view of livability (and more pleasant living in front of to a park or an industrial plant) both from the economic one (the presence of such a plant reduces, rightly or wrongly, the real estate value of houses and buildings in the vicinity) and from the environmental one, in particular for the consequences of influx of means of transport. But a non-populist approach to the governance of public affairs essentially consists in seeking, on the basis of reliable information evaluated by competent people, the choices that pursue the general interest trying to reduce, or possibly compensate, the legitimate particular interests that can possibly be harmed.

In the specific case, since the correct location and construction of a waste-to-energy plant produces enormous economic savings (lower transport and disposal costs), it is quite reasonable that part of the resources recovered are destined to minimize its environmental impacts (investments in the reduction of fumes and in the connection infrastructures) and to compensate those who still suffer some form of damage: for example through the elimination or reduction of tariffs for waste disposal or for the same use of the heat produced for heating purposes as well as through the creation of territorial interventions (parks, sports facilities, places of aggregation and socialization) that compensate the partial territorial damage caused by the plant both from an economic and from an "existential" point of view. The case of Copenhagen waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen (400.000 tons of waste treated a year in a plant 10 minutes from the city center) which has even become a tourist attraction with the opening of a ski slope above it last October !.

It is presumable, however, that, even by adopting a balanced approach, there will never be disputes to this type of choices: partly dictated by understandable although often improper concerns and partly by political ideological exploitation which in Italy tend to mix with particular ease . On the other hand, a non-populist approach provides for the full willingness to listen to reasons and observations made by the citizens most directly concerned (and the transposition of reasonable indications on any compensatory interventions) but also the courage not to be forced to make decisions by minorities, however mediatically supported they may be. Instead, there must be a clear and transparent assumption of responsibility by the political decision-maker subject to the overall periodic judgment of all the voters to whom he must respond.

It does not seem to me, however, that the current administrations of Roma Capitale and the Lazio Region show neither the ability nor the will to face the waste issue in a far-sighted way; alternating instead moments in which responsibilities are rebounded with moments in which they show that they agree on solutions that are systematically inconsistent.

It would take a courageous non-populist approach, but it seems to me that in none of the main political sides does it look different than trying to live.

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