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How Italy’s foreign residents are fighting the growing problem with beach pollution

As studies show environmental damage is on the rise on Italy's coastline, some of The Local's readers are taking action to make their area cleaner and safer. Here's how you can get involved too.

Garbage on the street corner in Sicily, Italy.
Some foreign nationals are taking action where they live in Italy to turn the tide on rubbish. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

The amount of rubbish on Italy’s beaches has risen to over 400 pieces per 100 metres according to a recent study – one of the highest concentrations in Europe.

Less than 20 pieces of marine litter per 100 metres of coastline would be considered a beach in ‘good environmental condition’, according to the threshold set at European level.

Reaching that level in Italy is an “ambitious goal”, according to Italy’s Environmental Research Institute (ISPRA), especially as Europe’s Mediterranean countries see markedly higher concentrations of beach litter than other parts of the continent.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its beaches?

A beach clean with plastic waste.
Volunteers pick up plastic waste from the beach. Photo: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

What are the authorities doing about the mess?

At a national level, the Italian government is taking some steps to clean up its seas, partially approving the so-called ‘Salvamare‘ law in July after years of discussion.

If the bill is passed into law, it would allow fishermen to take plastic recovered from nets ashore and have it recycled.

Right now, fishermen are forced to throw any plastic rubbish they catch back into the sea, because current legislation dictates that bringing it on land is a criminal offence.

Other environmental measures taken at a local and regional level remain patchy, with some authorities seemingly doing a lot more than others.

While climate campaigners and activists are growing in number in Italy, change is increasingly coming from ordinary residents who continue to pick up rubbish and gather to put pressure on the government.

How residents are making a difference

Sandra Ravi is an American teacher who is now resident in Sicily and spent most of her childhood on the island.

Shocked at the amount of rubbish on the coastline, and seeing the situation getting gradually worse, Ravi decided to start cleaning her local beach every day.

“It takes my breath away. I feel a burden on my chest,” she told us when describing the litter-strewn beaches around her home.

Rubbish, plastic and fishing nets on the beach.
All kinds of waste end up on Italy’s beaches. Photo: John Cameron on Unsplash

Ravi has had mixed responses to her clean-ups, with some residents saying she is “a wonderful person who’s doing an amazing job”.

Strangers even stop me in the street and give me baskets full of oranges and fresh eggs,” she added.

But others don’t understand why she would bother to try to make a difference.

READ ALSO: More than 40 percent of Italian coastline is polluted

“I had a group of cyclists one day shout at me, ‘Look at the mad woman who is always out cleaning!'” Ravi added.

She’s not alone in her eco-activism, however, as more and more organisations are galvanising to turn the tide on plastic and waste along Italy’s coastline.

How can you get involved?

Environmental group Plastic Free organise beach cleans nationwide to bring volunteers together to remove the trash that has blown or washed up on Italy’s shores.

September was a pivotal month in their campaign, which saw over 18,000 volunteers meet up across 300 locations on one day.

People gathered to collect rubbish and remove harmful waste, with the organisation marking a record haul of 243,721 kg of plastic and rubbish in one day.

British national Jeremy Bowling and his wife joined in with the national clean-up on September 26th in Spechiolla, Puglia.

He described the day as an “excellent atmosphere”, in which he saw familiar faces and made new friends, helping to collect some 100 bags of rubbish on their local beach that day.

Bowling said there was a mixed bag of items recovered, including masks, abandoned tents and plastic netting.

Despite the garbage recorded on Italy’s beaches, he said “things have massively improved in the 14 years we have been here”.

He noted that his local comune (town council) of Brindisi in the southern region of Puglia is efficient with recycling, even if there is a lot of fly-tipping in the area.

Plastic Free is constantly on the lookout for helpers, continuing their clean-ups throughout the year. Photos from their latest event showed how much difference just a group of 20 people can make.

To find your nearest cleanup event, see the calendar here.

Plastic Free also post call-outs on their Facebook page – and if you’re a qualified diver, you could join in with their underwater clean-ups too.

The group hold clean-ups in Ravi’s hometown of Capo d’Orlando, where she autonomously cleans up daily.

She said these initiatives help “a little”, but that’s only speaking for her area.

“The amount of rubbish and plastic washed up on shore after every storm is huge and a group of six people can only cover a small area. Usually no more than 10 take part,” she said.

She said organised beach cleans take place twice a year on her five-kilometre stretch of beach, and with not many people joining in, it’s not enough.

“They are worth it, but they need to become regular,” she said.

Ravi said environmental associations such as Legambiente “used to be very active” in the area but noted their lack of action recently.

Ultimately, she said, we are all to blame for the crisis we now face, “every single one of us”.

“For me it has become a hobby, a passion, a mission, a new way of exercising and I clean every day,” she said.

“I travel for work and I do not live here in Sicily all year round, and the mess I find when I come back is beyond words.”

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‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.


Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.