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  • Writer's pictureRowan Obach

Trash and the Past: Why is Rome’s Trash System Inefficient?

Written by Rowan Obach


Pictures and videos of Rome always show the beautiful frescos, magnificent architecture, and long winding roads with vespas. JFRC students know that the reality in the suburbs is not as aesthetic. Upon arrival at the JFRC, many students noted the piles of trash sitting outside Rome’s large recycling bins and litter on the streets. The issue has gotten so bad that the wild boars who roam the streets at night have taken to the bins as a midnight snack. Within the school, though we have separated recycling bins, we still fail to make efficient use of them. Why is this the case?


Above: A boar munches on the overflow from a garbage bin near campus.


When we look to the past, ancient Romans were actually quite advanced in their sanitation and waste disposal practices. In Pompeii, researchers found that piles of waste outside the walls were not simply dumped for disposal but instead were to be reused. “The piles outside the walls weren’t material that’s been dumped to get rid of it, they’re outside the walls being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls” (Smithsonian 2020). This was extremely modern for the time period and shows a core value of environmental sustainability in Roman culture. There were also political regulations surrounding waste disposal in Ancient Rome. “Concerning throwing rubbish from windows, the main thing was to prevent pedestrians from being injured. The perpetrator or the building owner could be hit with a fine. Littering was also punishable, [leaders] put great efforts into maintaining cleanliness on the streets [...] in a prohibition from throwing rubbish on the ground near public drinking fountains” (Havlíček and Morcinek 2016).


So what went wrong? Roman streets went from sparkling cobblestone to stained cement with litter everywhere. Modern Rome has a web of different regulations depending on which municipality you live in. Some municipalities fine residents who fail to sort their trash correctly, while others barely remember to collect it at all. In Rome, locals argue that recycling “doesn’t exist at all” with crime gangs and corruption overlooking the waste disposal system (The Local It 2019). Education and awareness are vital for recycling’s success in Rome as one resident comments: “ignorance, corruption, lack of company participation [can be attributed to the issue]. [T]he city needs to educate residents – and prevent the mafia from being involved in running public services” (The Local It 2019).


A typical overflowing trash bin on a street in Rome. (The Local Italy, 2019)

As tourists, we are often blamed for the pre-existing problems that have existed in Rome for decades. While the rest of Europe increases and advances in sustainable technologies, Italy may be left in the dust if new policies or regulations do not make significant changes in the next couple of years. Here at the JFRC, the best we can do is to cleanly and properly sort our waste so that we don’t get fined (eek, 500 euros per person!) and to protect the local environment that is left.



Wild boars run around near campus. Video courtesy of Alice Herold.


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