The trash trail – Part One: George Clooney’s rubbish

Be Green in Florence

Melissa Morozzo
September 10, 2009

Some couples go shopping together. Some go to the cinema or out for a romantic meal. Others (read: my other half and I) think it's great fun to spend a morning touring Case Passerini, a rubbish-processing plant on the outskirts of Florence.

 

Case Passerini processes Florence's rifiuti indifferenziati (non-recyclable waste) and rifiuti organici (organic waste). Quadrifoglio, the company that collects much of the city's rubbish, runs Case Passerini, and it is one of the largest private businesses in Florence.

 

The plant is in Sesto Fiorentino. At the sight of Brunelleschi's dome, majestic in the morning mist as I looked into the distance from the plant's car park, I took a deep breath. Then quickly wished I hadn't. Despite the plant's system for washing' the air before pumping it outside, there is still an unmistakable eau-de-rot aroma.

 

In the morning we spent with our friendly guides, Franco Cristo, direttore smaltimento, and Gianni Donnino, direttore dell'impianto, it became increasingly clear that both are passionate about rubbish. After helping us don luminous vests and hard hats (no masks, unfortunately), our guides showed us round the plant's nerve centre, a James Bond-esque control room full of levers and ominous big red buttons. Flashing screens monitor the plant's machines and track the stages of decomposition of the organic waste.

 

Then we followed the path of the tons of rubbish that arrive here every day. Non-recyclable trash is first unloaded into an enormous pit where the air has a suffocating, fetid humidity. From this deep trough, an enormous claw called the ragno (the spider) lifts loads of rubbish and drops them into the first of a series of chopping machines. Pointing out some highly inappropriate rubbish, such as an old bicycle and a mattress, Franco explained that this initial chopping phase reduces all the rubbish into more homogenous pieces.

 

As we watched, a small truck appeared and discharged some rubbish next to the pit. Franco crouched and split open a greasy bag. He explained that this rubbish came from door-to-door organic waste collection in the centre of Florence. However, this oozing mess was clearly not only organic waste: there was also plastic, tin and paper. Franco riffled through a bag and pulled out a receipt with the name of a restaurant on it. He shook his head, put the receipt in his pocket and we moved on.

 

As part of the processing of mixed trash, metallic materials are magnetically extracted and sent to be recycled with the plastic, metal, glass and paper, which are treated separately. At this point, as much organic waste as possible is filtered out using a wonderfully simple technique: pass the rubbish over an 8cm diameter hole and the majority of organic waste falls through the hole, whereas the non-organic waste passes over the top. The system, while good, is not perfect, so the next stage is to let the organic matter turn into compost to cover the nearby dump, a rectangular hill next to the motorway just past Ikea.

 

Now the remaining rubbish is pushed though another grinder and checked again for metal, rumbling through the plant on a series of noisy, criss-crossing conveyor belts from ground level to the ceiling, all of which seem to end in vicious, gnashing teeth. It's at this point in the process that the rubbish reveals most vividly current cultural habits. The floor under the conveyor belts is littered with small plastic cups that, on closer inspection, turn out to be the tiny containers used by that famous make of coffee machine-the one George Clooney apparently loves. The cups litter every nook and cranny of the plant. Reels of video tape tangle in the conveyor belts and hang down places like oily seaweed. Nobody watches videos anymore, explained Franco, and so they end up here.

 

Now a jet of air separates light and heavy bits. The heavier rubbish is compressed and sent to the dump. The light rubbish (known as fluff') is pressed into bales called CDR (combustibile derivato dai rifiuti, or refuse-derived fuel). After several stages of analysis, the CDR bales are sent to produce energy through burning. Our guides explained that with the technology available today incinerators pose fewer risks and cause considerably less damage than does dumping.

 

It's cold comfort to know that the city's non-recyclable rubbish is filtered to some degree. The organic waste extracted isn't pure' enough for commercial use, and burning CDR bales is an environmentally questionable solution. But the rubbish does not end up in one huge hole in the ground.

 

Why should we care? Nationally, only 27.5 percent of all rubbish is recycled, far short of the Italian government's legislated goal of 40 percent, set in 2007. Statistics gathered by the Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione Ambientale della Toscana show that although Tuscany recycles at a rate higher than the national average, the region produces more waste in the first place. Educating the public and instilling habits in the young is one part of the solution (Mayor Renzi has suggested that teaching children about separating rubbish should be a priority). However, understanding what happens to the refuse each one of us produces is a big step towards taking responsibility.

 

 

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