3   Fingers to Nose, Hamburg Gives Naples Help with Its Trash


Even the name of Naples has come to be associated with overtones of slovenly neglect, but it comes from the Greek for "New City." and served as the capital of New Greece of Sicily and Southern Italy. It was the home of great emperors, poets and musicians, but their masterpieces became the property of the world at large, while the neglect and refuse stayed very much at home to clutter the Napolitan streets. The succession of foreign monarchs who succeeded one another – Normans, Saracens, Spanish Bourbons, added to the profusion of Naples’ mostly neglected palaces. And not too far away Mount Vesuvius smokes on ominously and occasionally even lights up the horizon.

But it mattered little who occupied the Napolitan throne, the common folk had their living rooms on the street where the evidence of their fully lived lives can be measured by the heaps of garbage left behind.

Hamburg, in northern Germany, on the other hand is both a tidy and prosperous port in the German north. Now, however on a purely temporary basis, Hamburg is giving Naples a helping hand in coping with its garbage. The New York Times (09/06, "A Whiff of Naples Is Arriving in Hamburg" by Elizabeth Rosenthal) tells the story: "Hamburg – For months, mountains of rotting trash have grown in the Streets of southern Italy because the region has run out of places to put it. For the time being – 11 weeks actually – a 56-car train will arrive in Hamburg every day after a 44-hour journey, each bearing 700 tons of Neapolitan refuse.

"‘We are doing this because we were asked to provide emergency aid, but we will do this only for a few months, not years,’ said Martin Mineur, the director of two of Hamburg’s incinerators, as a steady stream of trucks carrying garbage from the train station roared by. ‘Italy will have to solve Italy’s problem.’

"But Italy’s problem has echoes in all of Europe, where Naples looks increasingly like a foul-smelling version of an untenable past, and Hamburg its future. Despite population growth, Hamburg produces less garbage today than it did almost a decade ago. What it does generate is either recycled or removed to high-tech, low-polluting incinerators.

"Outside Naples, Europe’s trash may not be overflowing in the streets, but across the continent, longstanding landfill sites are filling up quickly. The problem has made it imperative for European nations to cut their waste.

"By 2020, the European Union will require member nations to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills to 35% of what it was in 1995. It has already begun severely restricting and reducing the use of landfills, a.k.a. garbage dumps, because of the host of health and environment problems they produce.

"But none of this will be easy. Italy, Spain, Greece and Britain each still send more than 60% of their garbage to landfills. A recent study found that they, as well as Ireland and France, are unlikely to meet these tong-term landfill targets. In 2006, the US sent 55% of its waste to landfills, according to Environmental Protection Agency.

"‘Look, no one wants to ignore waste, or have huge piles of it out of sight in landfill as they do in Britain,’ says Barbara Helferrich, a spokeswoman for the European Commission Environment Directorate. ‘It’s a difficult problem, but some countries are definitely much better than others in waste management.’"

Running Out of Landfills

"It is perhaps not surprising that Hamburg should take the lead. It is governed by the German Green Party. On the street pedestrians are required to divide trash into four types of bins, depending on its recycling potential.

"Germany and a few northern European countries have spent most of the last decade developing strategies to reduce and dispose of the waste generated by modern life: closing polluting landfills and investing heavily in recycling and trash reduction programs.

"For the trash that remains, they have developed state-of-the-art incinerators that minimize noxious emissions with a series of filters and have put the energy generated to good use by heating homes and water, for example.

"But incinerators take at least four years to build, officials here say. Getting permits and planning permits to deal with a smelly undesirable problem often takes longer. For instance, although German officials agreed in February to take trash from Naples, it took months to get permission for the trash trains from Naples to cross Austria.

"On Thursday, the trash transfer program was briefly suspended after Hamburg officials found a small amount of radioactive medical waste in one of the railroad cars; Italian officials promised better monitoring.

"But a number of countries have problems that will not wait. ‘We have described the UK as the dustbin of Europe because we have put more to landfill than any other country of the EU, and our landfill space is running out very quickly,’ said Nick Mann of the British Local Government Association. Waste in Britain is increasing 3% a year, and its dumps will be filled to capacity in nine years. Trash is really a hot issue.

"‘Unfortunately, public concern about trash does not translate into solutions,’ Ms. Helferrich said. Those depend more on the structure of government, management expertise and national priorities.

"Italy ‘has money from the European Union,’ Ms. Helferrich said. ‘Italy has technical support, but they do not have a plan. Naples has not applied EU legislation, and they have been dragging their feet to come up with a proper solution.’

"In fact after years of warnings, the European Commission filed suit against Italy in early May, charging that it had failed to meet its obligation to collect and dispose of its garbage. Officials in Hamburg express a degree of sympathy, since until 2000 Hamburg sent a vast majority of its trash to landfills, too – most of it to the former East Germany. It was cheap and easy to truck away prosperous Hamburg’s trash to poorer towns looking for hard currency.

"But a decade ago, the state environment minister decided to end the practice. ‘After a while, they didn’t want to take it, and we didn’t want to export it,’ said Reinhard Fiedler, who runs Hamburg’s waste management. ‘We had ambitious environmentalists and there was a lack of space for land fill.’

"The city of about 1.8 million produced 1.6 million tons of garbage a year in 1999, and only 50,000 tons went to recycling. Today, despite growing in size, it generates only 1.4 tons, 600,000 tons of it is incinerated, and 800,000 tons is recycled, said Volker Dumann, Hamburg’s environment minister.

"The trend is to recycle more and incinerate less and to generate less waste altogether. Indeed, Hamburg’s incinerators have excess capacity to accommodate Italian trash capacity because so much trash from the city is now recycled.

"Hamburg’s incinerators not only dispose of trash, but also feed heat generated into the heating grid here. One plant here, run under contract by the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, heats water for a large part of downtown Hamburg."

Disposing of Trash as Fuel

"So it was not surprising that when Italy had a garbage disposal problem, it turned to Germany for a solution. On February 28 a delegation from the Campania region which includes Naples, flew to Berlin to ask for help from Germany. Last year, as the crisis deepened, one German city, Bremerhaven, quietly took a small amount of Naples’ trash for incineration. This year as the crisis deepened, it helped bring down the left-wing government. A larger rescue was needed.

"The German Environment Ministry agreed to take 200,000 tons of Naples’ trash for incineration. Some states, like Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, refused to take Italian trash. But Hamburg said yes. Hamburg has three incinerators, one privately run by Vattenfal, one public and one a public-private partnership.

"Naples and a host of other countries and cities have long ignored trash problems that are hazardous and environmentally damaging. Landfills leach toxic chemicals into the ground and produce methane, a gas far more potent than CO2 from car or factory emissions in terms of its effect on global warming.

"To reduce landfills’ use, governments are encouraged to reuse, recycle and then incinerate if necessary. In the US the Environmental Protection Agency recommends a similar ‘waste management hierarchy,’ with landfills as the last option.

"While incineration does produce greenhouse gas in the form of CO2, newer incinerators are relatively clean, using new technology to filter out heavy metals, nitrous oxides, particles and sulfites. In addition, Hamburg has placed its incinerators within the city, so that emissions from garbage truck transport are minimized and so that the heat from burning trash can be fed into the local heating grid. The Vattenfall plant is minutes from the city center, on an industrial road lined with recycling plants.

"Politicians in Naples said the region has been unable to build planned incinerators in Naples because of local opposition. But Guido Bertolaso is not buying that any more. ‘As you drive around Europe, you see incinerators in lots of neighborhoods,’ he says."


– from Economic Reform, July 2008