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Rome: Fiddling while the waste grows

Waste disposal in the Italian capital, Rome, has been in the news lately, or more accurately, the lack of it. Rome has lacked waste management capacity since its principal landfill (Malagrotta) was closed on environmental and mismanagement grounds in 2013. This followed a long-running European Commission investigation into the Roman and wider Italian waste sector. Since then, the city’s politicians have argued about what should replace the landfill, to little obvious effect.

Other than, that is, a rising level of waste around the city which smells worse and poses a greater health hazard in the hot summer months. Rome currently exports its waste either to other parts of the country or abroad. But even this arrangement seems to be falling prey to mismanagement and a lack of capacity. The end result is waste left untreated or dealt with illegally.

At AcuComm we don’t unearth a lot of waste projects in Italy, we’ve wondered why but, given the Roman experience, this is probably a fair reflection of the investment climate. The AcuComm database currently contains 28 waste-related projects, worth an estimated US$886 million or US$32 million each on average. The majority are either anaerobic digestion/biogas projects or dedicated materials recycling plants. You can check them all out here.

Aside from AD/biogas, there is very little investment activity in the waste-to-energy field. In 2016, the government decided that eight new MSW WtE plants should be constructed, to provide a total capacity of 1.831 million tonnes per year. As yet, nothing seems to have come of any of these plans, however. Other planned facilities have also struck difficulties. A new plant in Florence was approved in 2016 but was cancelled in 2018. An expansion of a plant in Pavia was announced around the same time, but this was postponed in 2017. At present, the only WtE plants that look likely are smaller and high-tech industry-specific ones. An example is a waste paper pyrolysis facility announced in northern Italy in 2019. This has yet to be built but has received approval on environmental grounds from the regional government.

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Italy’s official data for the generation and treatment of waste is interesting. The country generates more than it treats. In 2016, generation was 164 million tonnes, while treatment was 136 million tonnes, a treatment gap of 28 million tonnes or around 17%. Where does this unaccounted waste go? Assuming an accurate and consistent count (and the graph below demonstrates this may not be entirely the case), the best scenario is that it is exported to neighbouring countries. At worst, it’s disposed of illegally in an uncontrolled manner.

The official treatment figures themselves paint a suspiciously rosy picture. In 2016, recycling accounted for 79% of all waste treatment in Italy, landfill for 14% and incineration for the remaining 7%.  The broad story in the 2004-2016 period is that the proportion of landfill has more or less halved, while recycling and more or less doubled.

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How believable these figures are I’ll leave you to speculate on; the definition of ‘recycling’ can be very wide indeed. But the most pertinent point to note in the case of Italy is the near-total lack of adoption of WtE as a treatment method, in contrast to other major European economies.

As we are seeing in Rome, the options are limited once landfill is taken out of the treatment mix. The contrast with, for example, London, is great. London has reduced its reliance on landfill over the past 15 years but has also had a policy of building capacity to treat its own waste where possible, and not ship it elsewhere. Hence, a number of waste plants have been built or are earmarked across the city. Rome, like London, is a rich city. What it lacks is the political will to outline a solution.

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