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Collecting waste in Sicily: old and new ways


Every human settlement has to think of a way to dispose its solid waste, but each place finds its own particular ways to do this. I was once again forced to think about this simple fact on holiday in Sicily. Two peculiarities of Sicily are its rugged terrain, with old fortified towns up in the hills, and the many tourists that visit the island who are perhaps more careless away than they would be at home. How does Sicily deal with these challenges?

Castelbuono is a picturesque town with a medieval core, hundred kilometres from Palermo. The town is built on a hill, with a castle on its top. The main street follows the rim of the hill and is the only street that runs in a straight line for more than 100 meters. The street begins at the castle and ends at the central sloping square. Many streets are one way for the simple reason that not even two Fiats Topolino could pass each other. Other alleys consist of stairs made in stone and are not passable for any vehicle at all. Yet in this medieval lay-out, the residents produce modern volumes of waste with plastics, cans, cardboard, and so on. The question arises: How to remove waste from this urban environment? I spoke with local residents to find out.

The municipal cleansing department uses mini trucks to pick up the waste, but even then many streets and certainly the streets that have stairs are not accessible. The cleansing department has found a solution in a time-honoured means of transportation: the donkey. Residents are expected to separate the waste at home and place plastics, paper, and glass outside on particular days of the week. The waste is carried off on the back of the donkeys and brought to the mini trucks that wait at the nearest point they can get to.

Is this an old-fashioned system of waste management? On the contrary. Outside the medieval core, there is an isola ecologica (literally an ecological island), a separation plant, sponsored by WWF and Electrolux, where the waste is further processed. The donkeys are well adjusted to the circumstances and not at all used for nostalgic reasons. Castelbuono has found an apt modern system for local conditions, while also reinterpreting their historic human-animal relationship to create a technological solution.

Siracusa is another place in Sicily, much bigger than Castelbuono, and as a port-town existing since Ancient Greek times, very easily accessible. Siracusa does not struggle with steep alleys, but with mass tourism. It has tackled this challenge with a public awareness campaign. Billboards and signs on public buses remind the visitors that: “Responsible tourists love the places they visit. A responsible tourist doesn’t waste food, reduces packaging, drinks tap water, differentiates waste, preserves the marine ecosystem, and asks the others to do the same.” The call ends with the words: “Follow the Urban Waste Project recommendations and make Siracusa a better place.”

Here, waste management is seen as a complex sociological/behavioural problem with multiple aspects. A responsible person should not only not waste food, but must also reduce the production of waste by drinking tap water instead of buying bottled water. Moreover, the pedagogic effort does not stop between municipality and visitor, but visitors must also address each other when the one sees the other misbehaving.

Siracusa’s policy includes another promising element: it combines an appeal on responsible behaviour with the self-interest of the visitor. People can download the WasteApp, play a game and win prizes when they scan the QR codes found on trash bins. This smart playful idea entices residents and tourists to look for a trash bin to dispose of their waste and not drop it on the street.

Both cities are looking for ways to handle waste in a manner appropriate for local circumstances. Where Siracusa integrates new digital technologies with (global) social responsibility to create behavioural changes, Castelbuono cleverly reinvents elements of its cultural past. As a social scientist I am inclined to favour social solutions over technological solutions, but here, without having done further research on the matter, I hypothesize that the cultural-technological solution with donkeys in Castelbuono has more effect than the social approach in Siracusa. Simply because people are rarely motivated by ideological reasons alone to behave in a pro-environmental manner. Tourists who take a time-out from their ordinary life probably even less so.

Freek Colombijn is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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