In the summer of 2008, the southern Italian city of Naples (Napoli) dominated the newswires with stories about trash piles in streets, piazzas, and parks. Municipal workers refused to pick up trash in part because the surrounding region’s landfills were at full capacity. The building of incinerators only infuriated Napolitanos who saw their construction as a ruse to import trash from the northern Italy. Meanwhile stories of soil in farmland and parks becoming contaminated angered locals even more.
Indifference from the national government, local bureaucratic incompetence, and organized crime syndicates have all had a role in the Naples’ trash crisis. But residents within the city and throughout the Napolitania region have taken matters like waste diversion, recycling, and beautifying their communities into their own hands. Local activism, which takes the form of flash mobs, guerilla gardening, and innovative job creation, is certainly inspiring. But what is occurring in Naples could teach citizens around the world about how apathy from both government and business cannot be deterrents to revitalizing communities.
Many organizations are rousing up Napolitanos to tackle trash that still piles up in the 2600 year old city. Ambiente Solidale, a local NGO, coordinates with other local activist groups to distribute recycling containers to residents and businesses. The unemployed, unskilled, and unwanted workers in turn are hired to sort through everything from clothing to glass. The activism has not only reduced Naples’ tricky trash burden but has provided economic opportunity for those who most need it. Some cities outside of Naples even have a higher recycling rate than the well-heel cities in northern Italy.
According to three interviewees who did not want to be named in this article (you can guess why), this activism is also a workaround to avoid the red tape that haunts entrepreneurs and businesses in Italy. Plenty of opportunities exist to recycle or “upcycle” paper, plastic, and food waste into new products, but permits and licenses are often given to the well connected. So while some businesses continue to collect, sort, and process waste under the radar, local activists keep cleaning their city. Their task is a difficult one: as Italian expat Filippo de Luca explained, only about half of the garbage generated by Naples residents is properly disposed. Meanwhile, local government, well aware of the mounting problem, did nothing for twenty years.
CleaNap is one grassroots organization fighting for change. Its activists master social media tools and use smartphones like magic wands to gather flash mobs to clean up the streets and public spaces. Another group, Friarielli Ribelli (“rebel broccoli”) has helped make Naples greener and cleaner by planting gardens, painting benches, and cleansing public squares. The rebels' only weapons are hoes, rakes, and brooms--and anyone who is tired of complaining about the local political class doing nothing is welcome to join their troops. Meanwhile the activist group Oceanus, which brought the soil contamination issue to the forefront, provides logistical support from its long history of environmental activism throughout the region. All this collaboration is sparking new ideas of how to repair a city failed by the state, and markets, for far too long.
The challenges are numerous: boosting recycling in a region where it was never encouraged; managing food waste (CleanNap has made composting a cause); motivating a citizenry that is apathetic and discouraged; and dealing with more toxic materials like those in electronics, which for years were incinerated or buried. But there is hope: so far Naples new mayor, Luigi De Magistris, has excited locals with his enthusiasm and pledge to stamp out corruption, and recycling programs are underway. Ambiente Solidale, Friarielli Ribelli, and CleaNap are generating new ideas, creating more activist groups, and continue to work with local business, arts, and youth organizations to restore Naples’ pride while creating economic opportunity. Next month, Euclid Network, a London-based NGO is hosting a social innovation competition in Naples to fund entrepreneurs who can bring their experience abroad to help bring even more sustainable change to Naples. A city besieged by frustration for so long may teach some of us how to cope when local governments are underfunded or non-responsive.