Sicily waste emergency reflects global crisis

Foul smells and sights of waste incineration revealed by Mediterranean Toxics-Free Tour

Feature story - 11 November, 2002
If you live on an island, land is likely a precious commodity. That's precisely the case in Sicily, the latest stop in the MV Esperanza's Mediterranean tour. The Italian government has declared a "waste state of emergency" on the island. In a way, Sicily's problems are a microcosm of the waste problem on the big island we call Earth.

Greenpeace activists from MV Esperanza in hazardous material suits with samples of residues from the waste incinerator in Messina, Sicily

Space is running out, so what do you do with all those empty plastic bottles, potato peels and construction waste? The answer from industry and many governments has been incineration: put all that problematic rubbish together in a big furnace, burn it and watch it disappear. Problem solved. Or is it?

Sweeping things into the fireplace

Today we were set to show that sweeping things under the carpet (or into the fireplace) does not help. A "Toxic Patrol" made up of ten Greenpeace activists left the MV Esperanza at 11:00 am this morning to investigate and take samples at an incinerator operated by the MessinAmbiente Spa company in the Sicilian town of Messina, located in the province of the same name. As we came closer to the plant we could smell the gases coming from the stacks - probably containing dioxins, some of the most harmful compounds known to science.

'Clean' incinerators, toxic ashes

As we came approached the incinerator, we could see a conveyor belt dropping wet incinerator residues straight onto the ground, which was covered with an icky layer of grey mud. Two of our activists wearing hazardous materials suits and full-face masks began to take samples. It is estimated that for every three tons of waste incinerated, one ton of ash is generated. This ash may contain 100 times more dioxins than air emissions, as well as heavy metals and a range of other dangerous pollutants. The "cleaner" and more high-tech the incinerator, the dirtier the ashes. Yet these highly-toxic ashes are routinely disposed of in landfills or used to make roads and cement, spreading these dangerous chemicals all over the place.

Samples slipped out to labs, government

After taking the samples we were about to leave when we got a visit from the local police. We managed to sneak the samples out, though. One will be sent to our science labs at Exeter University in England for analysis. Another was taken to the Messina provincial government building, where another team of Greenpeace activists were blocking the entrance with banners and chained to barrels.

The incinerator we visited is the only one operating in Sicily so far, but there are five more being planned for the island. Vittoria, the toxic campaigner for the Italian office, met with the environmental official for the province of Messina. The official came out of the building, passed the activists, put on a pair of gloves, and accepted our sample, which he pledged to send for analysis to compare the results with ours.

Sane solutions

Our goal is to show that incineration is far from being a solution to waste management. Local, regional and national governments must play an active role by raising demand for recycled products, establishing economic incentives for clean production and implementing education and assistance programs. Manufacturers must take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging.

As you may expect, there are no quick technological fixes to the problems of industrialisation. The final answer to dealing with all the waste we produce is simply to stop producing it. Just as in the island of Sicily, the land and resources on our planet are very limited. It is time to tackle the waste problem from the roots - starting by banning dangerous technologies such as incineration, and setting the policies for a Zero Waste society.