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When in Rome: Why is the Italian capital shipping its trash to Amsterdam?

Rome is currently dealing with a surplus of rubbish after a fire destroyed its main incineration facility.
Rome is currently dealing with a surplus of rubbish after a fire destroyed its main incineration facility. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Charlotte Elton
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Rome will send 900 tonnes of rubbish to Amsterdam every week. What does that mean for the planet?

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Rome will send 900 tonnes of rubbish to Amsterdam every week starting this month.

The Italian capital is drowning in trash. The city’s four million residents produce more household waste than it can dispose of.

Starting from mid-April, a special-purpose train will transport some of this rubbish 1,700 km north to Amsterdam for incineration.

This is the most “environmental” solution, authorities have claimed.

So how will it work?

Why is Rome sending trash to Amsterdam?

Rome does not have the capacity to process the waste it produces.

Last year, a huge fire heavily damaged the city’s largest waste processing company. A new installation will not be operational until at least 2026.

Short of letting the rubbish spill out onto the streets and into waterways, Roman authorities have few options.

They could bury the waste in landfill where it would slowly decompose, releasing vast amounts of damaging methane gas.

Instead, the city has struck a deal with the Amsterdam Waste and Energy Company (AEB), which has agreed to take 900 tonnes of rubbish per week.

The waste will be pressed into huge bales, and loaded into 16 train wagons for the long journey north.

Rome will pay AEB €200 per tonne of waste, according to Italian newspaper la Reppublica - around €28 million over a three year period.

canva
Rubbish in landfill produces a great deal of methane as it decomposes.canva

What are the environmental consequences of sending Roman rubbish to Amsterdam?

Burning waste is not great for the environment. Incinerating a tonne of municipal waste releases about 1.3 tonnes of CO2.

It also produces harmful ash and other toxic by-products.

But dumping waste in landfills can be worse. As organic matter decomposes without oxygen, it produces methane gas. Over a 100 year timespan, methane has a warming potential that is around 25 times greater than carbon dioxide.

“Landfilling of residual waste, which is still done in many countries in Europe, is a low-grade method of waste disposal with harmful environmental consequences, mainly due to methane emissions,” AEB said in a statement.

Additionally, the energy produced by burning waste can be harnessed, whereas the slow release of energy from rotting trash cannot.

Part of the Amsterdam deal includes a condition that the energy generated from this rubbish will heat homes in Amsterdam. AEB already does this with around 30,000 homes in the city.

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Neither option is great for the planet, though. A sustainable approach involves minimising the amount of trash produced in the first place.

Where else in the world is rubbish shipped?

Rubbish is big business.

The Netherlands took in 24 million tonnes of rubbish in 2020, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Within Europe, there is a busy trade of rubbish between cities. Hamburg, for example, takes waste from the Netherlands. Copenhagen imports waste from the UK. Vienna imports waste from Italy and Germany, which it converts into energy.

But much of the EU’s waste is exported outside of the bloc - often to Turkiye and India.

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Globally, many countries import millions of tonnes of waste. Before 2018, China took in the most rubbish from around the world. It imported around 7.3 million tonnes of plastic waste and 29.9 million tonnes of paper waste per year. The government has since imposed restrictions on the trade.

Several countries suffer from the consequences of waste mismanagement, when rubbish is shipped to places that don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

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