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Bring on the Trash, Hamburg tells Naples

DPA news agency (th)
June 10, 2008

The Italian city of Naples, rocked by a series of garbage crises in recent months, can count on some German help in taking care of the stinky situation.

Trash on the streets in Naples
Germany is willing to take all this and moreImage: AP

From Naples, the Italian city with nowhere to dump its rubbish, the freight trains take 44 hours to reach Hamburg, a German city that is only too happy to incinerate the stinking mess.

Hamburg's municipal sanitation department has contracted with the Italian government's garbage supremo to destroy 30,000 tons of garbage from Campania, the Italian region that includes Naples, as part of a German promise to burn 160,000 tons for the Italians.

Money to be made

Sanitation spokesman Reinhard Fiedler declined to say what Hamburg is charging to transform all that refuse into ash and flue gas. But he said the work was not being subsidized by Hamburg taxpayers.

This tale of two cities illustrates how the Germans leaped with enthusiasm a decade ago into hyper-modern waste treatment that tries to see garbage as a useful resource, whereas Campania's own plans fizzled amid corruption and, some say, organized crime.

Hamburg, a city of 1.8 million, produces 1 million tons of garbage a year, 700,000 tons of that from private households. Fiedler says about one third is recycled by compost plants and scrap processors.

Not enough to go around?

Germans are disciplined at separating packaging and paper from the rest of their rubbish, and this creates business opportunities. In recent weeks Hamburg has been shaken by an ugly row between two parties that are desperate to receive more rubbish, not less.

In a business where the going rate for incineration work is said by industry sources to be 250 to 350 euros (392 to 550 dollars) per ton, Hamburg also "imports" rubbish from surrounding states, including 120,000 tons yearly from the state of Lower Saxony.

Italy promises radiation check

Last week, geiger counters picked up very weak radiation from the Italian garbage. Workers discovered rubbish smeared with radioactive iodine 131, probably from a doctor's surgery.

Italy promptly agreed to check all the rubbish for radiation before it leaves, and Hamburg said to keep the refuse coming. The first pre-checked trainload was set to arrive on Tuesday, June 10 in Hamburg, where 3,000 tons of weekly incinerator capacity has been reserved for the Italians.

Whereas that mostly arrives by truck, Italy's long-distance shipments, comprising 500 to 700 tons each, must be hauled by rail in containers over the Alps and across the North German plain to a freight yard a couple of kilometers from the incinerator.

Trucks carry the Naples waste the last two kilometres to giant concrete holding pens, ready for it to enter the incinerator hopper.

No landfills here

The plant is in Billbrook, a city district mainly occupied by factories where the residents are used to industry.

Billbrook's canals and thickets of birch trees and weeds give it a certain scruffy charm. Compared to landfills, with their rats, screaming seagulls and seeping effluents, it is a clean place.

Germany's move towards 21st-century methods of clearing garbage gathered pace in the 1990s, when many voters became attuned to green policies. Engineers devised low-pollution incinerators and in 1998, Hamburg completely ceased dumping household rubbish in landfills.

As Fiedler points out, liquids and gases coming from the former landfills will have to be monitored for generations.

Campania's rubbish exports are meant to create a breathing space so that streets can be cleared and partly built incinerators can be completed. Under European Union rules, all household rubbish is supposed to be burned or recycled from next year.