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In trash-strewn Italy, a city cleans up

In a region with a chronic waste problem and 12 percent recycling rate, one mayor successfully led a recycling revolution.

As another summer heats up in southern Italy, the unsorted garbage piling up on the sidewalks is starting to stink. It's a decade-old problem to which locals have resigned themselves. If one sidewalk is too full, they cross the street. And when too much garbage accumulates, they set it on fire.

But recycle? Forget it. Up until recently, no self-respecting southern Italian would partake in what many here deride as an obsessively-orderly and time-wasting foreign habit.

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Except Giovanni Romano. As mayor of Mercato San Severino, a town of 20,000 just south of Naples, he set out in 2001 to change the town's viewpoint on the issue. Today, it boasts a recycling rate five times as high as the regional average of 12 percent, and its streets are free of trash.

For over a decade now, boroughs in the Campania region have been battling against waste – a situation that came to a head last month when the European Union (EU) took legal action against the Italian government.

Since Italy declared a state of emergency for its waste in Campania in 1994, the government-appointed garbage commissioner has made recycling a top priority for local governments. But poor infrastructure, economic interests of the local mafia, and local mismanagement have put recycling on the back burner, leaving councils to struggle with their huge waste output.

Get rid of the cassonetti

So how did Mercato San Severino manage to do things differently? It just required some organization, explains Mr. Romano, who is now deputy mayor.

His first move was to get rid of all the cassonetti – the ubiquitous municipal trash cans where citizens can drop off black sacks of unsorted garbage as often as they like.

Instead he set up house-to-house collections – three times a week for organic waste, once for paper and cardboard, and once a fortnight for plastic and tins. Everyone in Mercato San Severino received a calendar with a colored picture next to each date that corresponds to the color of the sack that one is expected to leave outside.

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"We have to make citizens understand that waste is not something separate from us that they can get rid of by leaving it in their neighbor's garden," says Romano. "They have to understand that it's a product of their daily life. And the best way to do that is to force them to keep it in their houses."

Tax breaks for compliance

Romano has also introduced tax breaks for those who recycle more. Every family and business has bar-coded labels to stick to the colored sacks, and every sack is scanned when it is collected.

The more one recycles, the more money is deducted from one's city taxes at the end of the year. While an average family saves about ¤40 euros ($55) per year, some businesses have managed to save up to ¤200 (more than $250.)

"The mechanism is psychological. People start looking for material to recycle. They start pulling it out of the black sacks [that contain non-recyclable material], because in this way they have financial benefits," says Romano.

Ice cream shop owner Nicola Iannone and his daughter-in-law Luisa Di Somma emphatically praise the system.

"We start work at 5 a.m. and the roads are already clear. All those stinky bins and those mountains of garbage are not around anymore," they say.

"We don't have all the chaos they have in Naples," adds Maria Cerrato, a passerby. "It's better for the children and for the elderly, it's better for the entire town."

EU cracks down on Italy

With the garbage emergency come health and environmental risks. According to recent data published in the Corriere del Mezzogiorno newspaper, 43 percent of Italy's polluted territory lies in Campania. And the World Health Organization has indicated that the largest dumps pose a serious health threat to babies in the womb.

Things worsened after the closure of the last official dump at the end of May. And last month, the European Commission issued a written warning and requested information on what measures to quell the situation have been taken in Campania. If the Italian government failsto tackle the crisis, the European Court of Justice can impose a financial penalty.

Plans for an incinerator are being opposed by residents as well as the local mafia, the Camorra, which has economic interests in the waste management business and profits hugely from the crisis.

Romano says that the city's experience can inspire other towns to drop the methods that favor the Camorra. Already, that is happening in a few dozen boroughs.