ROME—On a blistering July morning in Rome, a man in a white hazmat suit is collecting samples from a pile of festering and oddly shimmering liquid that has seeped from a dumpster into the cobblestone lanes near the Roman Colosseum.
Around the corner, traffic is backed up on a major street as a massively overfed seagull and a diseased-looking raven tussle over the carcass of a bloated rat. Garbage bags ripped open by rodents spill the contents—rotting food and curdled milk—onto picturesque squares. Citizens have taken matters into their own hands, liberally scattering rat poisoning in the overflowing dumpsters, but that means the smell of decomposing dead rodents and rotting waste permeates the air. And let’s not even talk about the size of the cockroaches that scatter when the city’s church bells toll.
It is summer and the Eternal City—one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet—is a giant, festering garbage dump. Four out of every 10 garbage trucks are out of commission, either due to budget snafus that have led to shoddy maintenance or drivers’ strikes. And even if they were in service, the backlog for the city’s overcrowded dumps, two of which are shuttered for maintenance and a third which burned down this spring, have made them nearly inaccessible.
Rome’s chief physician Antonio Magi issued a “hygiene alert” after conducting tests of some of the waste. He warns that if the garbage is left uncollected, rodents and cockroaches could spread disease throughout the city with their droppings. The warning has prompted Rome’s city attorney to open an investigation into possible negligence on the part of the city, which would pave the way for lawsuits if people start contracting garbage-borne diseases. A handful of the city’s considerable homeless population who tend to dine out of the dumpsters, have been tested for diseases.
In early July, during the height of a Europe-wide heatwave, Italy's Pediatric Medical society warned parents to “keep children at home, especially those with allergies,” after residents just started setting the dumpsters on fire to get rid of the garbage. That has since become illegal, though at least two dumpsters in the city center exploded this week due to spontaneous combustion. And because Romans are not exactly proficient recyclers, the bins are filled with everything from aerosol cans to used gas canisters, potentially turning trash into projectiles when lit.
The city of Rome, with a fixed population of just under three million and an annual tourist influx of around 10 million visitors, produces some 2,100 tons of garbage each week. But in some parts of the city, garbage has not been collected since mid-June. In some areas, like the busy tourist districts near the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and Roman Forum, residents have joined together to remove the garbage themselves using an ad-hoc rotation schedule posted in the local coffee bars (though they often just take the garbage to the neighboring districts).
Most people blame the populist city government run by Five Star Movement mayor Virginia Raggi. She and the local regional Lazio governor Nicola Zingaretti from the opposition Democratic Party have been accused of taking the city hostage over politics. Raggi claims that Zingaretti has prohibited the opening of new garbage dumps outside the city limits in an effort to make the Five Star government seem inept. Zingaretti said Thursday that he was being used as a scapegoat. “Instead of thanking and apologizing to the mayors and residents of many Lazio towns for helping dispose of Rome's trash, Raggi throws accusations around,” Zingaretti said. “She has reduced the most beautiful city in the world into a disaster zone.”
Italy's Environment Minister Sergio Costa has suggested that Rome “negotiate with other EU countries for waste management” as a temporary solution. But the city has a budget deficit so it is unclear how it would ever pay for someone else to handle the mess.
On Thursday, Raggi promised that the city would be clean by the weekend, which is not only laughable but impossible. With 40 percent of the garbage trucks parked, it will take months to collect all the piles of neglected trash.
As usual, cynical Romans have their own way of handling the crisis. They've launched an online ugly dumpster contest whereby residents post pictures on social media of the most disgusting displays of degradation. Thousands of photos have been submitted so far and the winner has been promised a roll of garbage bags to help clean up the mess.