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Keeping Sicily Clean
by Cheryl Di Speranza

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Editor's Note
This is part a series dealing with specific aspects of Sicily's travel and tourism industry, presented in the interest of providing realistic insights and information for travel agents, tour operators and anybody interested in visiting Sicily. Our editors have invited persons having professional experience in the industry to write about it. Best of Sicily is not associated with any public tourism bureau. Articles in the series:
Tour Guides in Sicily
Hotel Ratings in Sicily
Golf in Sicily
Sicily's Bed & Breakfasts
Keeping Sicily Clean


A city trashed.Keeping a city clean would seem to be an important aspect of tourism promotion. If it is rarely mentioned explicitly by tourism authorities, that's probably because it is simply presumed in most cities. After all, who wants to visit a dirty city that is literally full of rubbish?

After more than twenty years living in the city of Palermo, I really thought I had seen it all: people throwing trash out onto the streets, corrupt local administrations, beautiful historical buildings falling to pieces, the local mafia controlling almost anything that could generate real revenue.Around Palermo.

But over the last ten or twelve years many of these negative things had started to take a positive turn. In fact, it seemed as if this uniquely historical and marvellous city had begun to live again. It was like the phoenix coming back to life from its own ashes after having burned in the fire of purification. I honestly thought that Palermo was going through a new Renaissance and that even the people living here were proud of heading towards this spirit of renewal.

Maybe I was wrong: for almost ten days now (30 May 2009) the city has been at the mercy of the local trash collectors, who have not come to pick up the trash in town because they are protesting against the city administration.

It is not a real strike, or at least that is what the sanitary personnel of AMIA, the city's refuse collection agency, say. They say that the workers are simply in "agitation" and that they are not on an official strike. Nonetheless, hundreds of garbage collectors have been protesting in front of the city hall for days (one afternoon they stopped traffic on a main street while the police stood by and watched, doing nothing), threatening to continue the strike if a higher trash tax is not approved by the city council (it's already high), so that they can be paid a higher salary, and if all their job contracts are not renewed. One worker, who said he has a family with five children, even went so far as to openly threaten the city's mayor by saying that if he lost his job he would come back and kill him. A large group of these employees were hired just after one of the previous election campaigns for mayor with the promise of jobs for votes. A number of these people were ex-convicts, and they probably wouldn't have otherwise found another job. Being threatened by somebody is unpleasant at best; what if they've been incarcerated for a violent crime?

Maybe in another country the trash collectors would have been back to work after protesting for only a couple of days because they would have been threatened with losing their jobs. But this won't happen in Italy which is a highly socialist country where people cannot be fired easily, and strikes are legal and even promoted by Italian labor unions, which are often run by the extreme left-wing political parties.

What really gets me upset though is the fact that every household in this city of almost one million residents is already paying an exceptionally high annual trash collection tax, from 200 to 500 euros! What is the city administration doing with this money? And with what audacity can they even think of raising the already-high garbage tax by some 30 percent and give in to the threats of these angry workers? Don't the law-abiding, tax-paying Palermitans count at all for the local administration which was elected by them?

Is it possible that the only people here who count in town are the ones who don't do their job and who possibly do not pay the taxes that instead a good number of respectable citizens do?

And now the garbage containers are completely covered and surrounded by trash that has not been collected for over a week. When this happened in Naples last year, and the garbage hadn't been collected in months in that city because there was no room left in the city dumps, the Italian government stepped in to give a hand. But in Palermo's case, the dumps are not full, and the local government is even building four new incinerators following modern technological standards in and around the city in order to avoid any problems in the future. So who is going to come in and help us? Only the citizens of Palermo can do something about it, but will they? Or will they just let it pass like they have done so many times in the past?

I had always wondered why a lot of local Palermitans liked to live on the highest floors of not-so-beautiful high-rises, but now I am starting to understand that it is because they want to be as far away as possible from the stench down below.

So for them, it may not be a question of finding a real solution to the problem, but of just trying not to see it. In fact, there are still some people in this city who don't think twice before throwing trash out into the streets and not in the garbage containers because what counts for them is that the inside of their houses are clean. What happens out in the streets is of no importance for such people.

I really have no idea how this trash crisis will end in town. My best guess is that the new garbage tax will be approved, and that none of the citizens will protest until next year when it's time to pay. Many simply will not pay the tax.

In the meantime, if you are coming in for a visit in town, just try to accept the trash scenario together with the congested traffic and the noisy streets of this beautiful --but often mistreated-- city. Fortunately, with the exceptions of the places pictured on this page, some key areas of tourist interest are --for the moment-- free of trash.

About the Author: American-born Cheryl Di Speranza is a Sicily-based travel consultant.

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