PASSAU, Germany, June 11, 2008 -- Germany appears to be the only country in Europe that is in a position to help Italy tackle its massive trash problem, which came to light when the city of Naples ran out of places to dump its trash, forcing the Italians to turn to its European partners for help.
The two countries recently cut a multimillion dollar deal that allows Italy to dispose of up to 160,000 tons of waste and ship it to Germany for incineration.
Most of the Italian waste comes from the region of Campania, which includes the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and Naples, which has been under a kind of "garbage siege" since last December, when the dumps in southern Italy were declared full and garbage collectors refused to collect the trash.
Ever since, Naples has seen thousands of tons of trash pile up along its streets. The city has become notorious as the city of garbage.
The deal brokered by the two countries means that over the next three months three to four trains per week will arrive at the northern German town of Hamburg after a 45-hour ride all the way from southern Europe, each train bearing some 700 tons of refuse.
Up to 60,000 tons of trash will be collected from the streets of Naples alone, and another 100,000 tons will be made up of household waste from around the Campania area.
Other German cities, like Bremerhaven and Düsseldorf, are partners in the deal. They are sharing the trash in order to put their state-of-the art incinerators to work, but Hamburg can easily handle up to 3,000 tons per week in addition to managing its own trash.
The Italians are reportedly paying approximately $235 per ton, and paying for the transport as well. Hamburg officials admit that the city makes good money helping the Italians.
However, they insist they can provide only a short-term solution.
"Our incinerators have excess capacity because it's summertime, which allows us to provide 'first aid' to Naples. There's no way we can provide a long-term solution, but we do have the capacity available to help Naples out from under," Reinhard Fiedler, spokesman for Hamburg's waste management agency, told ABC News.
"There's less trash in summertime because so many people travel, which gives us extra capacity."
Fiedler said, "There is no quick fix for Italy's problem, which goes back some 20 years, because local governments have apparently been unable to get all sides to agree to a long-term plan allowing for the problem to escalate. Our city is lucky in that it has completely overcome the opposition toward building incinerators."
Fiedler explains that the city of Hamburg owns some of the best, high-quality incinerators that are relatively clean, using the latest technologies to filter out heavy metals, nitrous oxides, particles and sulphites.
"One of our incinerators is able to produce heat for some 12,000 apartments in downtown Hamburg. The heat from burning trash is fed into the local heating grid," he explained.
"Another example is the huge Hamburg Harbor container terminal, where the entire surface consists of recycled incinerator slag used for road construction instead of having to dump it."
There are plenty of good examples of how to deal with garbage, mainly, how to reduce it not only in Germany but also in the Scandinavian countries, all of which have focused on reducing the amount of trash they send to landfills.
With garbage dumps filling up quickly, not only in Italy but everywhere in densely populated Europe, the European Union ruled that its member nations had to cut their waste dramatically, and the EU has strictly limited the reuse of garbage dumps because of health and environmental problems.
In Germany, the birth place of the environmental Green Party, waste management has successfully kept the use of landfills to a minimum, so much so that between 1990 and 2005 it has saved some 46 million tons of CO2 per year.
A spokesperson for the Berlin Environment Ministry explained the German system: "Ever since 2005, no biodegradable waste goes to landfills. Everything that is recyclable should be recycled, everything that is reusable should be reused, everything that does not fit into either of those categories should be dumped into the incinerator; in other words, Germany has managed to almost completely do away with disposing its trash at landfills."
"Trash management is really a hot issue here in Europe, and there is no one-size-fits all solution. Different countries face different problems. A recent study shows that countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Britain, where some 60 percent of the trash is still being sent to landfills, will have difficulties to meet a 2016 deadline by the European Union requiring them to reduce biodegradable trash sent to landfills to 35 percent of what it was in 1995," said Almut Reichel, project manager at the European Environment Agency, referring to a study published by her agency last year.
"On average, one can say that overall, a total of 45 percent of all municipal waste in Europe is still being disposed of at landfills, and the road from land filling to recycling is a difficult road ahead."
Back in Hamburg, Fiedler is convinced that his city's waste management system will soon be adopted by other European cities, especially in Italy.
"We were more or less forced into tackling these problem years before other countries in Europe, because there was too much trash and we were constantly running out of space for it. Now that we have overcome the teething problems, we're self-sufficient and we're encouraging other cities to follow us."