This Stinks: Italy Sends Troops to Handle Trash Crisis

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Italian soldier walks past a pile of garbage in Quarto near Naples

Italian soldier walks past a pile of garbage in Quarto near Naples

The Italian Army arrived in Naples today to help the city deal with some 2,000 tons of uncollected garbage. About 170 troops have been deployed, with around 70 trucks, in a long-running trash crisis that began in 1994 when Italy declared a state of emergency after illegal dumping by the local mafia overflowed the region’s landfills.

This is the second time since 2008 that the Italian armed services have been called up to deal with the trash crisis. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last week said that he had ordered the troops “to return Naples to being a civilized city,” an announcement that immediately brought groans from his critics, who accuse Berlusconi of using the trash crisis for political gains. Naples, along with other cities, holds mayoral elections next week. Berlusconi, a conservative, hopes to win control of the city, which has long been run by center-left mayors.

What’s causing the trash crisis? As Stephan Faris wrote for TIME last October,

Blame for Naples’ episodic waste outbreaks is attributed to everyone from incompetent administrators to corrupt politicians to self-interested businessmen. And in a part of the world where organized crime has a strong hold—the Naples-based Camorra is one of the country’s largest criminal organizations— it’s no surprise that many think the mob is involved. According to Angelo Genovese, a professor at the University of Naples who has studied the city’s impact on Mount Vesuvius, Naples’ packed urban center and relative affluence makes it the largest producer of garbage in the world per square meter. And yet, the infrastructure to deal with it doesn’t exist. Even after Berlusconi’s 2008 intervention, the city and surrounding areas have just one incinerator—running, say the Prime Minister’s critics, at 30% capacity.

Naples’ trash is a captivating oddity–and you can see TIME’s stunning pictures of it here. But what’s most interesting to me is not that a combination of corruption and wastefulness has led to a localized garbage crisis. Anyone who has visited cities in India knows how quickly human effluent and solid waste can accumulate. What’s interesting is this reminder in the heart of hygienic Western Europe that the greatest advancements in modern medicine and health care have not come from fancy scanners or designer drugs. They have come from improvements in environmental health—sanitation, water purification, waste disposal, and the other dark arts that keeps our poop, piss and putrefied trash at a safe and invisible remove. Stewardship of our environment is what has led to the most dramatic improvement in the quality and duration of life of westerners in the past two centuries.

That’s an important lesson. Keeping our environment clean–sponging up or reducing our waste products, be it soot, scat, aerosols or carbon–dramatically improves human life. If only greenhouse gasses could accumulate on our city streets, and stink, maybe we’d be more inclined to take meaningful action to combat climate change.

(More on See how a famous Chinese artist was inspired by the Naples’ garbage)