Is a garbage-free public space possible?

Litter on the beach in Palermo, Sicily.  / photo: Johannes Eber

I was in Sicily this month. A week by train across the Italian Mediterranean island. First, by night train (from Rome) on the ferry across the Strait of Messina, then to the second largest city Catania, around the Etna volcano with an overnight stay in the lovely town of Randazzo, down to ancient (and very touristic) Siracusa, further along the south coast, later across the heartland, up to the island’s capital Palermo, finally along the north coast back to Messina and towards Bologna.

It was a fantastic ride through a beautiful cultural landscape. Flat land, hilly terrain, also mountains. Almost the entire island is cultivated (about 11 per cent of the workforce, more than twice as many as in the rest of Italy, work in the island’s vegetable and fruit plantations or wheat fields). 

However, what I remember most impressively: As soon as you approach the big cities of Catania and Palermo, there is more and more garbage in the fields and on the streets. In the cities, trash is piling up in many places. Everywhere you look, there is plastic packaging, paper and cans all over the ground. Even and particularly on the beaches. 

The only exception are places where there are many tourists. There, the beaches are cleaned regularly and the streets are swept daily.

The experience was disturbing. How can one live in such a beautiful but, at the same time, flawed environment? And why is apparently so little done about it?

The answer is actually quite simple. Garbage is thrown away because garbage can be thrown away easily. It is pretty convenient and it can hardly be sanctioned because it usually does not happen under surveillance. The empty can of coke thrown out the car window, the rolling paper dropped on the way to the bus stop, the party scraps left at the BBQ area – throwing things away saves a time-consuming disposal. 

Litter on the roadside in Palermo. / photo: Johannes Eber

So there is a dilemma. The desire for a clean environment meets the effort to avoid waste. Perhaps the individual effort would be made if one’s behaviour had a relevant influence on the environment. But it hasn’t. In the mass of the many, one’s action hardly plays a role. As a result, everybody throws away the rubbish.

The dilemma calls for ways out. 

This is what we as a society can do about it:

(If you are interested in what can be done on an individual level, check the site “Ten Ways to Unpackage Your Life“.)

Make trash disposal easy. Setting up trash cans and emptying them regularly is perhaps cities’ most straightforward task. The closer the next rubbish bin, the lower the individual “disposal cost”. This applies to any type of disposal. If old paint, broken cars, and household waste can only be disposed of for a fee, people will find ways to do it for free. Disposal must therefore be simple and free of charge.

Let others take out the garbage. Every city has and needs municipal waste disposal. How intensively litter is cleared is a question of money and priority. One thing is for sure: the intensity of cleaning by the public influences individual behaviour. People throw rubbish where there is rubbish. The reverse is also the case: less new waste usually ends up in a freshly swept area. We all are herd animals, what others do, we often do, too. 

Make garbage valuable. If you can earn money with waste, it doesn’t end up in the environment. In Germany, where I live, many beverage bottles are subject to a deposit. You practically never see such bottles lying around. Some leave them, others collect them. 

Penalise throwing trash away. While it’s not easy to spot littering (a prerequisite for a fine), raising awareness that it’s not okay gives at least some law-abiding people something to think about. To create this awareness, signs in public can point to the offence.

Avoid packing material in the production process. Waste that is not produced cannot be thrown away. For example, legislation can make compostable packaging mandatory or make it more attractive. Or, the manufacturers have to contribute to the costs of cleaning the public space – possibly depending on the amount of packaging they use (so they have an incentive to use less). 

Educate. You have to know what the consequences of environmental degradation are to feel responsible for it.

Build a sense of community. When individuals are disconnected from their local surroundings and feel no ownership or sense of community, they become far more likely to engage in habits that are not environmentally sustainable. Community organisations that connect and support local people can make a difference here.

So, there is a lot that can be done. Of course, not only in Sicily. The problem, in different dimensions, occurs in every major city. Let’s all work to make them smaller. A nature without (wo)man-made waste is a lovely nature.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.