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Debate hots up around Naples waste

(Keystone)

Rubbish currently piling up on the streets of Naples in southern Italy could soon be producing heat for the citizens of Geneva.

Meanwhile plans to incinerate it in Switzerland are generating heated debate.

The Services industriels de Genève (SIG), which disposes of Geneva's waste, is negotiating a contract with two waste management firms in Naples to burn a total of 181,000 tonnes of rubbish in the next four years. The output of SIG's Cheneviers incineration plant on the outskirts of Geneva provides heating for part of the city.

The SIG board announced on Thursday that it was in favour of a deal.

"SIG is imposing strict controls. In the first place we are insisting that the waste comes by train. Then we are checking its origin and its quality. We want fresh waste, not stuff that has been lying around festering for months," Christian Brunier of SIG told swissinfo.

"It is better for the planet to bring waste to Switzerland by train and treat it in a 'top model' plant like Cheneviers than to have it put in a landfill or just dumped in Italy," he argues.

But opponents of the plan claim precisely the opposite.

"For years communes like Geneva have been conducting campaigns to tell their citizens that they must cut the amount of waste and recycle more, and it is ridiculous, economically and ecologically to transport waste a thousand kilometres to burn it here," says Pierre Maudet of the City of Geneva council.

Maudet, who is a member of the SIG board, voted against the decision.

"We're a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand we want to cut the amount of waste being incinerated, which produces C02, but on the other we depend on the waste for energy and heating for some parts of the town," he told swissinfo.

"In any case, sooner or later we shall have to close one of the three incinerators in Cheneviers."

One of the arguments advanced by supporters of the plan is that Cheneviers is indeed working under capacity. Ironically, it is precisely the success of Switzerland's recycling campaigns that has led to this situation.

Taking Neapolitan rubbish will save fifty jobs, SIG says. But Maudet rejects this argument: a workforce of more than 1,600 can easily absorb the loss of fifty posts, he says.

Brunier accepts that there will be less waste to incinerate in future. But the deal with Italy would only be for four years, enabling the inevitable staff cuts to be made gradually.

Naples is different

Although Cheneviers has taken waste from France and Germany in the past, and is considering a contract with Austria, both sides accept that the public is worried about Naples as the source.

"We have made our criteria a little bit stricter in response to people's concerns," Brunier admitted, but he stressed that these concerns are unjustified.

Tests will be carried out before the waste is shipped, and a third party – "certainly based in Switzerland" – will also check that it corresponds to the standard agreed.

Even so, Maudet is not convinced. "We have serious doubts about the traceability of the waste," he said.

Before any waste can be brought to Switzerland, it has to get the approval of the central and cantonal authorities.

When an application is received, it will be carefully examined by the Federal Environment Office, who have strict criteria for granting an import permit.

Exporters must guarantee to take the cargo back if it turns out that it cannot be treated as agreed, Beat Frey of the Environment Office explained to swissinfo.

"The waste isn't tipped straight into the incinerator, but into a pit. You can see what it is. If it's not right, you stop."

"We also demand that it should be checked for radioactivity," he said.

Brunier claims that talk of mafia involvement in the Naples rubbish deal is quite misplaced. The mafia is in the business of making money. "It has no interest in sending waste by train, having it undergo numerous checks, and paying over the odds," he said.

"There's an attempt to sow doubt and worry people for nothing. We can't accept this, and it's not fair on Italians either who have real environmental concerns and want their rubbish to be treated properly."

Although SIG has not yet applied for an import permit, it is hoping that the first consignments of waste will arrive in a few weeks time, once the central and cantonal authorities have given the deal the green light.

But Maudet expects strong opposition from the press, politicians and the public. For or against, there is no lack of passion.

Treating Italian waste in Geneva would be a "major mistake" says Maudet.

"It's a policy of sustainable development," says Brunier.

swissinfo, Julia Slater

SIG – Services industriels de Genève

SIG is owned jointly by the canton of Geneva, the city of Geneva and the communes of Geneva.

In addition to treating waste, it supplies water, gas, electricity and thermal energy and runs a fibre-optic network for communication and IT services.

The SIG site at Cheneviers can handle up to 350,000 tonnes of rubbish annually.

It is currently working under capacity and could handle up to 90,000 tonnes from abroad every year.

It has already treated waste from France and Germany, and is in discussion about a contract with Austria.

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Naples Rubbish Crisis

Naples has faced periodic crises over its waste disposal for the last 15 years or so, because the Campania regionproduces more rubbish than it can dispose of acceptably.

The latest crisis started around Christmas, when dustmen stopped collecting it.

The Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, continues to make money by controlling the illegal dumping of millions of tonnes of toxic waste.

A number of foreign companies have expressed interest in treating some of the Neapolitan rubbish. In Switzerland not only SIG but also the companies running the incinerators in Lausanne, Bern, Thun and Zurich are holding discussions with partners in Naples.

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