Sign up to Simon Calder’s free travel email for weekly expert advice and money-saving discounts Get Simon Calder’s Travel email Tourists to Venice are being urged to ditch single-use plastic water bottles and drink from fountains, in the latest attempt from local government to cut down on pollution. Tourism is responsible for up to 40 …
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, masking has been one of the key public health measures put in place to combat the disease. Since March 2020, billions of disposable surgical masks have been used around the world, raising the question: What happens to all those used masks?
As researchers in single use plastic and microplastic pollution, the onset of a global wave of plastic debris pollution became evident to us in the early days of the pandemic — we could see the evidence even during lockdowns when exercise was limited to short daily walks in the neighbourhood. Masks and gloves were on the ground, fluttering in the wind and hanging on fencing.
As ecologists, we were also aware of where the debris would end up — in nests, for example, or wrapped around the legs or in the stomachs of wildlife.
In Canada, a team of researchers led by conservation biologist Jennifer Provencher studied how plastic debris impacts wildlife. In a study conducted during a canal cleanup in The Netherlands, biologists at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center documented that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) debris would interact with wildlife in the same way as other plastics.
Effects on wildlife
There’s a cartoon circulating on the internet that goes like this: a rat comes home carrying bags of groceries to see two rats laying in bunk beds made from medical grade masks. The rat in the bottom bunk exclaims, “Free hammocks, all over town. It’s like a miracle!”
We shared this cartoon with our colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic, while we were conducting surveys of PPE litter around Toronto streets and parking lots.
We found that within the area that we were surveying — which covered an area of Toronto equivalent to about 45 football fields — over 14,000 disposable masks, gloves or hand wipes accumulated by the end of the year. That’s a lot of rat hammocks.
We set out to understand the breadth of the harm that PPE is doing to wildlife. What we learned is just how many other people were equally concerned.
We conducted a global survey using social media accounts of wildlife interactions with PPE debris. The images are jarring: A hedgehog wrapped in a face mask, the earloops tangled in its quills. A tiny bat, with the earloops of two masks wrapped around its wing. A nest, full of ivory white eggs, insulated with downy feathers and a cloth mask.
Many of these animals are dead, but most were alive at the time of observation. Some were released from their plastic entanglement by the people who captured the photo.
In total, we found 114 cases of wildlife interactions with PPE debris as documented on social media by concerned people around the world. Most of the wildlife were birds (83 per cent), although mammals (11 per cent), fish (two per cent), invertebrates such as an octopus (four per cent) and sea turtles (one per cent) were also observed.
The majority of observations originated in the United States (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), likely representing both the increase in access to mobile devices and our English-language search terms. Observations also came from 22 other countries, with representation from all continents except Antarctica.
Weighing costs and benefits
With an estimated 129 billion face masks used monthly around the world, how do we, as ecologists and environmental researchers, tell a global population experiencing a global pandemic to use fewer masks? We don’t.
N95 masks have been essential in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and, although they are more environmentally harmful than cloth masks, the benefit to health is demonstrably superior.
So, what could we have done better? One thing we noted during our PPE litter surveys is the abundance of discarded masks and gloves in close proximity to public garbage bins.
We hypothesize that a lack of clear messaging from municipalities and provinces about safe ways to dispose of PPE, along with our reluctance to gather near sources of discarded PPE, may have contributed to this global pollution event.
Developing better ways for people to get rid of their PPE waste may help prevent used surgical masks from ending up in the environment.
These are lessons that can still be implemented as we continue to cycle through waves of this pandemic; the use of masks is not yet behind us. Our surveys continue as we track an accumulation of PPE debris that will likely find its way into more nests and tangled around the bodies of more animals.
The rise of single use plastic use due to COVID-19 may not have been avoidable. But the rise in plastic pollution could have been mitigated with some investment in public outreach and modifications to waste management infrastructure to allow for masks and other PPE to be disposed of and processed correctly with minimal leakage to the environment.
In 676 AD the Anglo-Saxon Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne had a lot of things on his mind. His home, the remote Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, was not the pristine idyll it once was. Poachers had set their sights on the islands’ rare eider ducks. The islands’ residents too were hacking at Farne’s forests with worrying alacrity.
Cuthbert was adamant that urgent remedial action was required. And so he gathered the islands’ elders to enact the world’s first piece of environmental protection legislation. Poaching was immediately prohibited by statute. Loggers were threatened with imprisonment. And within months the renaissance of the eider had begun.
The UK has a long history of delivering game-changing environmental policy to protect our most precious flora and fauna. In 1990 the UK Government hosted the renegotiation of the Montreal Protocol – a landmark global agreement effectively ending the depletion of the ozone layer. And in 2008 the UK’s Climate Change Act became the first global legally-binding climate change mitigation target set by a country.
This leadership is now needed more than ever before to tackle the plastics crisis. Indeed this month a Greenpeace report revealed 100 billion pieces of plastic are thrown away each year in the UK alone. Globally there are up to 75 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. The plastisphere is now so pervasive plastic is a ubiquitous presence in our bodies, our landscapes, and our aquatic environments.
In March this year UN member states came to an historic agreement to develop a legally-binding global treaty on plastic pollution. The world has expressed a clear collective ambition to have the detail of the treaty negotiated by the end of 2024 for adoption and ratification the following year. But as with everything in life, the devil is in the detail.
At the heart of the negotiation will be five international negotiating committee meetings where member states will agree on the scope and design of the treaty. Get it right and the world will have produced a set of tough legally binding measures and targets across the full lifecycle of plastic, capable of being strengthened over time without the need for additional ratification, to turn off the plastic pollution tap once and for all. Get it wrong and the world will have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle one of the most profound environmental issues of our time.
The UK has a vital role to play in ensuring the world gets a global treaty on plastic that is fit-for-purpose. That’s why at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network (OPLN) we’re delighted to be working with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to deliver this.
Together we’ve created the UK Plastics Treaty Dialogues. OPLN and Defra are set to work with the leading lights of civil society and global business to help shape a treaty that works for all stakeholders. This activist-to-industry network will assemble for six invitation-only meetings over the next two years to build capacity for the UK’s participation in the Global Plastics Treaty. These dialogues will feature some of the world’s most influential business and environmental leaders including Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle, WWF, Greenpeace, WRAP and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Good policy is rarely created in a vacuum – and the UK dialogues will ensure Britain is well placed to help shape a Global Plastics Treaty that is fit for purpose. I call on the world’s foremost thinkers to join these dialogues to ensure we fulfil the promise the treaty offers.
For centuries the UK has shown real vision on environmental issues. The UK Plastics Treaty Dialogues will help ensure this spirit of bold leadership continues. There’s not a moment to lose.
Dave Ford is Founder of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network
Footage of men and women covered in black oil, and emerging from a swimming pool, are part of a new international ad campaign to sell more wool.Key points:New wool campaign highlights the eco-credentials of the fibre compared to synthetic fabricsThe ad features people dripping in oil, representing the fossil fuels used to create synthetic clothingIts message contradicts proposed EU sustainability labelling laws which could see synthetics ranked above woolLevy-funded research and marketing group Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has launched the new ad campaign to highlight the sustainability of wool, compared to synthetic textiles.The ad, which will run in America, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, depicts people swimming in a pool of black oil, struggling to get out.When they do finally emerge, they take off their dripping clothes to reveal clean wool products underneath.AWI said it was based on the insight that “every 25 minutes an Olympic pool’s worth of crude oil is used to produce synthetic clothing, which amounts to almost 350 million barrels a year”.
September 1, 2022 — In the spirit of the annual University of Cambridge–led horizon scan of emerging conservation issues, 30 experts from around the world last year put their heads together to brainstorm and assess the potential impacts to ocean and coastal ecosystems over the next decade of a spectrum of human activities across the globe. Their analysis, published in July in Nature Ecology and Evolution, found 15 big issues bubbling to the top.
The increased frequency and severity of fires on land can have cascading impacts as wind and rain carry soot, nutrients, metals and other by-products of burns to coasts and oceans. In some cases these substances can boost the productivity of ocean plants. But the disruptions they cause can also shift the balance of life, making it difficult for some species such as corals to survive.
More severe storms due to climate change, along with development, dredging, thawing permafrost and other factors, are increasing the amount of sediment and nutrients in ocean waters and boosting algae growth. This can reduce the ability of sunlight to penetrate into deep waters and alter water chemistry. The changes can have some benefits, such as reducing coral bleaching. But they also alter species mix and potentially reduce the ability of organisms to soak up carbon.
Acidification Meets Metals
Toxic metals enter the ocean from industrial waste and from disturbance of previously polluted sediments by storms and human activities. As carbon dioxide concentrations increase in the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs more of the gas and its water acidifies. The acidity in turn can increase the ability of marine organisms to take up the metals. In some places where metals are a limiting factor, such as the deep ocean, this can boost phytoplankton growth. In other places, the metals can be toxic to ocean organisms and contaminate bivalves we harvest and eat, potentially causing human health problems as well.
Warming ocean waters are causing ocean organisms to move poleward in search of cooler conditions, with shifts happening five times as fast as those occurring on land. In some cases, other species that better tolerate the heat can move in to fill the void. But in some places at the equator, ocean biodiversity is actually decreasing, with fewer plants and animals around to keep the ecosystem healthy, resilient and able to meet human needs for food.
Fatty Acid Famine
Fish — particularly slow-growing species that inhabit cold water — are a major source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), an important component of the human diet. The fish in turn obtain EFAs from phytoplankton. As climate changes cause ocean waters to warm, phytoplankton will likely make fewer EFAs and fish ranges could shift in ways that reduce their ability to ingest these compounds. This might have adverse impacts not only for human diets but for other ocean life forms that depend on phytoplankton and phytoplankton-eating fish for sustenance.
A protein called collagen is used to make cosmetics and other consumer goods. It’s currently harvested mainly from livestock, but as demand grows, manufacturers may turn to collagen-rich ocean animals such as sponges, jellyfish and sharks. On a positive note, the trend could boost sponge farming, reduce the impact of undesirable jellyfish and provide a use for parts of harvested fish that otherwise would be thrown away. But, concerns revolve around reduced incentives to avoid catching nontarget species in commercial ocean fishing.
Swim Bladder Demand
The market for dried swim bladders, a luxury item in some cultures, is growing. Harvest of fish aimed at meeting the demand already has contributed to the endangerment of at least three species. As populations decline, pressure could shift to related species, creating a “cascading effect” that puts those species at risk as well. And increased demand not only threatens the target species but also nontarget sharks, turtles and other marine organisms that are accidentally caught along with them.
Carbon Mover Removal
As fishing pressure on the ocean increases, mid-depth species are increasingly being harvested. The problem is, these are also the species that help move carbon in the organisms they eat into the deep sea where it can be sequestered for long times. Removing these fish could disrupt the downward movement of carbon, reducing the ocean’s ability to counteract climate change.
A boom in demand for lithium for batteries, such as those used in electric vehicles, has mining interests turning to deep ocean waters that contain significant quantities of the valuable metal. With emerging lithium-concentrating technologies, extraction is a looming reality — potentially threatening species living in rare and extreme environments.
More the Merrier?
As humans increasingly turn to the oceans for food, energy and more, opportunity arises to cluster enterprises. This can create economies of scale and reduce habitat disruption. The researchers note that we need ways to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of colocation to minimize habitat disruption and threats to biodiversity, and to avoid sub-optimization, such as expecting the ocean area beneath a floating wind turbine to be an ideal aquaculture site.
Cities at Sea
Talk of building towns in the ocean has increased in recent years. Benefits to humanity would be new energy sources, abundant water for hydroponic agriculture and more, but governance challenges would be likely. It’s a mixed bag for ocean life, too: Floating cities could help anemones, sea urchins and other marine organisms that live at least part of their life cycle on rocky intertidal surfaces migrate to safer places in the face of climate change. But it also could facilitate the spread of biodiversity-threatening invasive species.
Growth in electric vehicles and other “green” technologies that require batteries is increasing the use of cobalt, nickel and other trace elements. These elements pose a contamination risk to near-shore ocean sediments as they leach from production sites and landfills, with potential implications for sea life.
It’s hard to track the movements of marine organisms because radio signals transmit poorly through water. Now, new technology known as underwater backscatter localization (UBL) has potential to dramatically expand our ability to study undersea life. UBL could benefit conservation by enhancing the ability to understand distribution and behavior of ocean animals. But it also will be important to consider how the presence of the devices might adversely affect them.
The use of robots that mimic life forms for ocean research is growing. Because so-called “soft robots” aren’t limited by the need for pressurization like rigid robotics, this may boost deep sea exploration. At the same time, it could disrupt previously untrammeled environments and harm marine life by using novel organisms as fuel or being ingested by indiscriminating animals.
Biodegrading Into What?
Biodegradable plastics are beneficial because they can prevent the buildup of trash in the ocean environment. But what about the components the materials degrade into? The speed with which such materials are entering the market due to consumer demand has in some cases limited testing of the impacts of degradation of the products, opening the door to potential new problems with toxicity within the marine environment.
A ban on single-use plastic and paper bags in grocery stores had an unintended effect: Delivery services switched to heavy, reusable sacks — lots of them.Nicole Kramaritsch of Roxbury, N.J., has 46 bags just sitting in her garage. Brian Otto has 101 of them, so many that he’s considering sewing them into blackout curtains for his baby’s bedroom. (So far, that idea has gone nowhere.) Lili Mannuzza in Whippany has 74.“I don’t know what to do with all these bags,” she said.The mountains of bags are an unintended consequence of New Jersey’s strict new bag ban in supermarkets. It went into effect in May and prohibits not only plastic bags but paper bags as well. The well-intentioned law seeks to cut down on waste and single-use plastics, but for many people who rely on grocery delivery and curbside pickup services their orders now come in heavy-duty reusable shopping bags — lots and lots of them, week after week.While nearly a dozen states nationwide have implemented restrictions on single-use plastic bags, New Jersey is the only one to ban paper bags because of their environmental impact. The law also bans polystyrene foam food containers and cups, and restricts restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless they’re requested.Emily Gonyou, 22, a gig worker in Roselle Park who provides shopping services for people through Instacart, said she was surprised when she learned the delivery company had no special plans for accommodating the ban. “They pretty much said, ‘OK, do exactly what you’re doing, but with reusable bags,’” she said.Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeCard 1 of 4Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeMelting ice.
KERATSINI, Greece — It was Lefteris Arapakis’s first expedition on a fishing boat, and he didn’t expect what the nets would pull up.There were scorpionfish, red mullet and sea bream. But there was also a bright red can of Coke.About this seriesClimate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.Arapakis, whose family had plied the waters near Athens for five generations, pulled the can out of the net and turned it over to look at the sell-by date stamped on the bottom. 1987. Seven years older than him. It had been in the Mediterranean for almost three decades.He was still staring at the can when a fisherman grabbed it out of his hand and tossed it back into the water.“That’s not what we’re paid to catch,” Arapakis recalled the fisherman saying.Every day, the fishing boat — and thousands just like it on the crystalline Mediterranean — caught old bottles, plastic foam, flip-flops and other detritus in its nets. And every day, its crew tossed everything back into the undulating waters, only hauling back what would bring cash.So Arapakis, now 28, had an idea: He would try to convince the fishing industry to treat plastic as a catch. In 2016, he launched a nonprofit focused on sea cleanup and fishing education called Enaleia, a play on Greek words that calls to mind sustainable fishing. Once the fishers brought the plastic ashore, he would recycle it and pay them for their trouble. Six years into the project, he has signed up more than half of Greece’s large-scale fishing fleet — hundreds of ships — to pull in the plastic they gather as they ply the Mediterranean. He plans to keep expanding globally.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisementThis year, after Arapakis spread his efforts across Greece and much of Italy, he expects to gather nearly 200 tons of plastic — enough to fill a football field five feet high with tiny pieces of plastic. That’s more than 7,500 pounds of plastic every week. And others have taken notice: The United Nations Environment Program named him a Young Champion of the Earth in 2020 — its highest environmental honor for people under 30.Global plastics activists have struggled for years to make an impact as the amount of plastic flowing into the world’s oceans continues unabated. One 2015 study found that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic were likely going into the world’s waters every year. The problem is especially acute in the Mediterranean.“In a way, plastics are trapped inside the Mediterranean,” said Kostas Tsiaras, a research scientist at the Hellenic Center for Marine Research who has studied plastic pollution in the sea.And the challenge is global: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of especially dense concentrations of plastic debris in the northern part of that ocean, is estimated to be roughly twice the size of Texas.“At first the fishermen were making fun of us,” Arapakis said. “They said we are not Greek garbage collectors.” But as the project has expanded, the fishing industry has flocked to it.“They were part of the problem. Now they’re part of the solution.” he said.Lefteris Arapakis aboard the Panagiota II, his father’s fishing boat, in Keratsini, Greece, on July 25, 2022.When Lefteris Arapakis’s father, Vangelis, started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent.“In the 1970s there weren’t any plastic bottles. Bottled water didn’t exist,” Vangelis, 57, said on a recent afternoon, perched in his office above the selling floor of the Keratsini fish market just west of Athens — the biggest in the country. Inside, the smell was of stale cigarettes. From a cracked window came the aroma of the sea.Things changed in the 1980s, he said. For a time, when fishing boats followed in the wake of the big ferryboats that plied the sea near Athens, they would find a trail of bobbing bottles. The problem built quickly: the Mediterranean is like a big bathtub, connected to the Atlantic Ocean only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, leaving detritus with little escape.By the 1990s, when Lefteris was a child, plastics were a daily nuisance in the nets. But if anyone ever brought the waste to shore, local authorities would complain about the disposal problem and ask for it to be dumped at sea. The message back then was “make it disappear,” Vangelis says.Fishing could then become a frustrating cycle, as plastic debris passed from one boat to another. “We’d take the fish and we’d toss everything else back in the sea,” he said. “Another boat would come again in five hours and they’d do the same thing.”Back then, there were still plenty of fish when the boats pulled in their nets, according to Vangelis. Now, though, every year it feels like there are fewer fish for a shorter time.Vangelis had hoped to pull his eldest son into the fishing industry, giving him summer jobs cleaning the boat and selling fish at the market.“He was gifted to be able to talk to clients and to offer what we had to offer,” the father said. “He was good at explaining things.”But Lefteris Arapakis, a lanky theater aficionado with shoulder-length hair, a scraggly goatee and a pierced ear, had always been an awkward fit for the culture of the wharves. In that world, big, taciturn men plied the seas for long hours. They sold their fish overnight, then slugged back beers at a portside cafe as the first light broke over the water. Fishermen measured their success by the size of their haul and the size of their car. He was fine with his little Alfa Romeo and a copy of Dante tucked into his backpack.Worse, Arapakis’s sympathy was in the wrong place: “I always felt pity for the fish,” he said.Aboard the Panagiota II, Lefteris Arapakis’s father’s fishing boat. Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.Aboard the Panagiota II, Lefteris Arapakis’s father’s fishing boat. Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.Arapakis always knew he didn’t want to spend his life on the family boat, navigating choppy seas as his great-grandfather’s painted icon of St. Nikolaos watched over his shoulder. Fishing for plastic, however, felt different, and the boat — the Panagiota II, named after the family matriarch — could be his testing ground.Arapakis felt a shock of excitement when he saw what the boat brought back the first day it collected trash, in 2018: two big trash bags full of plastic.“If we hadn’t taken action, we would have had that plastic floating around the Mediterranean forever,” Arapakis said.Now the organization Arapakis started, Enaleia, pays fishing crews a small amount every month for the plastic they gather — between $30 and $90 per crew member, depending on how much plastic they bring in. (The group found that crews bring in more if they get paid for their work.) The funding comes from foundations that support the organization — mostly Greek groups, with a few international donors such as the Ocean Conservancy, Nestlé and Pfizer — and from profits from the sales of recovered fishing nets to clothing manufacturers, who can reclaim the material for socks, backpacks and shoes.Other fishermen get paid to do days of plastics cleanup entirely, instead of heading out for fish.Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere.Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere.At the beginning, convincing fishermen to join was painstaking work, requiring a lot of face time in unfamiliar villages. It wasn’t easy: The industry doesn’t always cotton to environmentalists, since many fishermen think the activists want to take away their livelihoods. And the culture can be deeply resistant to change. One season, Arapakis’s father painted his boat a vibrant cerulean rather than the deeper blue that is traditional. Other fishermen were still laughing about it a year later.So sometimes Arapakis would just walk up and down a wharf, talking to the crews he came across.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“Maybe you know my family. We fish in Piraeus,” Arapakis would tell them. The Greek fishing industry is small enough that people often recognized his family name. Then it would usually take shared meals and some ouzo, Greece’s ubiquitous anise-flavored spirit for the fishers to trust him. “I had to get drunk with them,” Arapakis said.At each new port, he needed to convince authorities to let him store the plastic that many of them viewed as trash, and to find new routes to recyclers.Now from port to port across Greece’s vast coastline, fishing boats are gathering plastic and bringing it to shore. About 60 percent of Greece’s biggest fishing boats are working with him, about as much as makes sense logistically, Arapakis said. The remainder work from ports where it wouldn’t be cost-effective to set up the infrastructure to take the plastic for recycling.And in Arapakis’s home port, a vacant corner has been filling up with the measure of their success: car seats. Old fishing nets. Bottles from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, even the United States. Big trucks haul the catch to recyclers across Greece.The fishing boats of Vangelis Arapakis (pictured), and others at the port in Keratsini, Greece. When Vangelis started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent, he said.The fishing boats of Vangelis Arapakis (pictured), and others at the port in Keratsini, Greece. When Vangelis started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent, he said.At the recycling plant in the mountains outside Athens where Arapakis sends much of his plastic, black plastic pipes that were the remnants of a fish farm were heaped outside the main warehouse on a recent afternoon. Bundles of plastic bottles were piled 15 and 20 feet high. Inside the plant, workers fed the plastic into complicated machines that first washed the old material, then dried and sorted it, then chopped it into flakes or melted it into pellets. The material was poured into tall sacks that each held a metric ton of tiny pieces of plastic that looked like vast piles of small, sparkly jewels.Figuring out what to do with all of the plastic has required nearly as much creativity as getting fishers to sign on. Small port towns don’t always welcome the sudden influx of litter, and sometimes Arapakis has to push to get permission, or even legal changes, to store it somewhere. Until very recently, for example, Italy didn’t technically permit plastic waste to be hauled from the sea.And recycling companies don’t like plastic that has spent decades in the sea: it’s sun- and water-beaten, and the end product isn’t as strong as what comes from fresher material, making it more challenging to resell.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisementBut there’s a growing demand for reclaimed plastic, and sometimes the story is just as attractive as the material itself. Companies such as Adidas have started making shoes and clothing out of reclaimed ocean plastic, a development Arapakis hopes will expand the market. For now, much of his recycled plastic is mixed with higher-quality recycled plastic to make things like furniture. He sends the used fishing nets to companies in Spain and the Netherlands that turn them into backpacks and other articles of clothing. He gives ocean-plastic socks out as presents, including — at a recent star-studded reception — to Greece’s president.“Until we had this option with Lefteris, there wasn’t any place to put the trash,” said Christos Iliou, 54, a fisherman on the island of Kythnos, about 50 miles southeast of Athens who has a Playboy bunny tattooed on his left bicep and a golden propeller on a chain around his neck. “You could collect it, but it was a Catch-22 because it would end up back in the sea.”“Lefteris has a gift. He can convey his passion,” he said. “People trust him. They know who he is.”At the daily fish auction at the Keratsini port near Athens, on July 26, 2022.At the daily fish auction at the Keratsini port near Athens, on July 26, 2022.On a recent morning, Iliou puttered his boat out of the main port of Kythnos. The water was perfectly clear — and bottles could be seen underneath the surface, on the seafloor about 10 feet down. He was piloting a team of cleanup volunteers toward a series of beaches that were accessible only from the water.In the port, a plastic bag floated by. Further out, day-trippers on rental boats roared across the water, leaving the fishing vessel rocking in their wake. The island’s terraced hills — once covered with hops that were taken to an Athens brewery, now mostly abandoned — slowly passed against the horizon.At one beach — just thirty or forty feet wide — the cicadas buzzed in the morning heat. There were no other people in sight. And though from a distance the beach looked pristine, up close the ground was thick with litter. Half a flip-flop. A cookie cutter in the shape of an anchor. A long piece of driftwood, plastic bags impaled on each of its gnarled branches. A red medicine bottle.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” said one of the volunteers, Irini Vlastari, 66, who came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. Vlastari lived on the island until she was 12, when she moved to Athens. She still comes back every summer.Back when she was a child, people reused things, she said. Old clothing was repurposed into dolls. Tin cans were cut into toy cars. “We wouldn’t throw things away.” Now, “every year there’s more trash.”Volunteers collect coastal plastic in Kythnos, Greece, on July 27, 2022. Irini Vlastari, 66, came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. “You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” she said.Volunteers collect coastal plastic in Kythnos, Greece, on July 27, 2022. Irini Vlastari, 66, came on the cleanup venture with her son and two grandchildren. “You feel you’re doing something, even if it’s a little bit,” she said.The cleanup hauls in two 55-gallon bags of plastic over a few hours.Enaleia’s efforts won’t clean up the Mediterranean on their own, Arapakis acknowledged — the scale is far too vast.“Cleaning plastic from the sea is not solving the problem, it’s treating the symptom,” he said.Enaleia also tries to do preventive work, encouraging fishing boats to recycle their nets at the end of the season rather than tossing them in the sea. This year they gathered more than 30 tons.Arapakis is still thinking about places to expand: Kenya is the latest target, his first attempt beyond the Mediterranean. Next is the rest of Italy and Cyprus. Another target is Egypt, whose powerful Nile pumps a torrent of plastic into the Mediterranean.In Kenya and elsewhere, Arapakis says his program is able to have even more of an impact, paying fishermen more than they could earn by fishing simply to focus on gathering plastic. That helps fish populations recover and brings in more plastic per fisher than in the Mediterranean.The cleanup effort, as small as it is compared to the scale of the challenge, is still a way to leave the sea a better place, Arapakis said.“I cannot change the climate crisis. But I can change my father’s mind, and some of the others who work with him. And then we can expand to fishing communities around Greece, and then you can expand to Italy and the Mediterranean,” Arapakis said. “What you change grows. ”Lefteris Arapakis watches the sun set over the horizon on July 25, 2022.About this storyElinda Labropoulou contributed to this report. Story editing by Dayana Sarkisova. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Illustration animation by Emma Kumer. Design and development by Hailey Haymond. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn.
“Circular manufacturing” has the promise to reduce waste by reusing parts to make new cars. There are glimmers of hope, but they are currently outweighed by challenges.This article is part of our series on the Future of Transportation, which is exploring innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.Car tailpipes belch out an estimated 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly, but cars begin to pollute long before they ever hit the road. And they continue to pollute long after they are junked. They begin to use energy and emit carbon through extraction and production of the steel, rubber, plastics, glass, lithium and leather used to build them. When scrapped, they molder in junkyards, emitting chlorofluorocarbons, and dripping oils and acids that are a hazard to groundwater.Now scientists, environmentalists, policymakers and car manufacturers are advancing an idea that could change that. An industrial concept called “circular manufacturing” aims to break the cycle of take, make, use and toss, by building cars whose components can be endlessly reused to make new cars.The idea is new enough that there is no standard definition — there isn’t even an agreed-on name. It’s variously called circular manufacturing, the circular economy or manufacturing in a circular economy. Nevertheless, circular manufacturing is part of the European Green Deal, which establishes the groundwork for new regulations for car companies.Although the idea is barely past the conceptual stage, car companies are already rushing to claim circular superiority. “GM Technology is a leader in Circular Economy,” crowed a 2020 news release. BMW, Ford, Toyota, Tesla and others have also made claims on the circular future. Industry observers caution that, for now, the circular economy’s chief value may be public relations.“This is a ripe opportunity for a lot of greenwashing by automotive firms,” said Richard Gregory, an economics professor at East Tennessee State University who studies the practice. “Are they actively looking to mislead? At this point it’s hard to say because there are no federal regulations about what they are doing.”The central characteristic of circular manufacturing — circularity — creates both a quandary and an opportunity: There is no one place to start, and each part of the cycle is as important as the next. That means there is no one central problem to address, but it also means even obscure elements of car-making can contribute to improvement.Despite the challenges, there are glimmers of progress from companies as diverse as a super-car start-up in California, a student project in the Netherlands, and an automotive parts consortium.“People think we are talking about only recycling, but it is very much larger than that,” said Abhishek Gupta, who leads the World Economic Forum’s Circular Cars Initiative. Broadly, the idea is to reduce how much energy and material go into making a car. There are a number of ways to do that: using more wind and solar energy in the manufacturing process, for instance, or making parts of less or recycled material. “By looking at the measures of carbon and resources you consume, you can really look at your level of circularity,” Mr. Gupta said.It sounds simple. But a study published in 1998 by the Society of Automotive Engineers found that midsize American sedans comprised about 20,000 components. Cars have only gotten more complex, which is a challenge for recyclers, said Greg Keoleian, lead author of the study, now a professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. “There’s a lot of room for improvement at end of life of the vehicle,” Mr. Keoleian said.Car recyclers strip valuable parts, like working engines, for reuse. The remaining hulks go to scrap metal companies, which typically shred the rest. But the mixed alloy shred has limited use.Take aluminum. “The aluminum stream in that case is a mix of a lot of different alloys, including cast alloy, which doesn’t go well back into sheet,” which is used in body panels, said John Weritz, vice president of standards and technology at the Aluminum Association. The demand for unmixed material is growing as carmakers increasingly use lightweight aluminum body panels, he said.In circular manufacturing, the answer to the sorting problem is to change the design process to include a plan for dismantling, so a retired car is easy to separate into like sources of metal, plastic, rubber and glass. Setting cars up to provide easily recycled materials helps free manufacturers from supply chain issues: The car becomes its own supply chain.One place the car industry says it is making tangible gains is in packing and shipping materials. “We reduced packaging by using reusable shipping containers,” said Kevin Butt, chairman of the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, a consortium of companies and government agencies that deal with transportation. Although the idea isn’t new, Toyota North America, where Mr. Butt is director of environmental sustainability, said that since 2017 it has reduced 65 million pounds of cardboard and 171 million pounds of wooden crates, and has saved $273 million by using containers molded of recycled plastic to ship parts like struts, catalytic converters and steering wheel shafts. The consortium wants to see the practice adopted by all of its members.Between building and recycling there is, of course, use. The circular goal there is to extend how long a car remains on the road: Fewer new cars mean fewer materials and less energy needed to build a new one. But there is a hitch — at a certain point keeping an aged car running may contribute more to pollution than building a new one would.“If we keep gas-guzzlers on the road too long, we are benefiting from a material point of view, but not from an emissions point,” said Jennifer Russell, who co-wrote a U.N. report on the circular economy.One of the more ambitious projects to keep cars on the road is Renault’s Refactory in Flins, France, a 915,000-square-foot facility dedicated to a vast experiment in making and refurbishing cars, and converting some to electric power. It is creating a dismantling line, to provide parts for discontinued cars, as well as unmixed streams of metals and plastics for recycling. It may also convert some gas-powered vehicles to electric, with a goal of recommissioning 25,000 vehicles this year.The main element of the experiment concerns how to make circularity feasible as a business. “They can’t do everything because it’s good for the environment; they have to have business reason for it,” said Alice Bodreau, global partners manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the circular economy, which is partnering with Renault.All of this has gained the attention of major carmakers. Last year BMW made a splash at the International Motor Show in Munich with the iVision, a concept car it said is completely recyclable. But those efforts are way behind a lesser known student effort at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, which has been producing recyclable concept cars for years.Students from the Eindhoven University of Technology team with the ZEM recyclable concept car model they helped develop. Eindhoven University of TechnologyThe students, who are now on their fourth generation of this vehicle, which this year is called ZEM, for Zero Emission Mobility, may still be ahead of the majors. BMW’s lauded iVision was styled like an economy car: tiny, square-ish and simple. The students found the public indifferent to a similar aesthetic in their previous versions — but they have a plan to solve that problem.“This year we wanted to make a really badass-looking car so people would want to interact with it,” said Louise de Laat, manager of the student team for the school’s TUecomotive effort. The ZEM, built for approximately $50,000, bears passing resemblance to the sporty BMW 4 M Coupe, and is made of 3-D printed plastic reinforced with glass or carbon fiber. The ZEM is currently being shipped to America for a tour.Of course, carmaker’s concept models and student projects are unconstrained by safety regulations. But the car company Divergent 3D is now producing the Czinger 21C, which is not only designed using principles of circular manufacturing, but is also street legal and set a track speed record at Laguna Seca. The car is built using 3-D printing that reduces the amount of material used in a car by an average of 40 percent, without compromising strength. The parts, printed of aluminum, can be atomized and the powder reused, which would seem energy intensive, but the company founder, Kevin Czinger, said, “The amount of energy is far less when you take into account you are extracting materials through mining.”Unfortunately, for the time being, the “eco” in “eco-friendly” does not stand for economy. The first major manufacturer to use a Divergent 3-D printed subframe is Aston Martin, which will put one in the head-turning limited production DBR22 convertible. The price? A base model will cost you around $2 million.
A national program to transform Java’s Citarum River into a source of drinking water expires in 2025.A reforestation program in uplands near the source of the river is drawing on community volunteers.West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil tells Mongabay that residents will see improved water quality by 2025 and that there is political will to tackle the crisis. BANDUNG, Indonesia — In a valley downstream from the source of the Citarum River, retired army general Doni Monardo approaches a magnolia tree planted in 2018 by President Joko Widodo to mark the start of one of the world’s most ambitious river cleanup operations.
“The tree planted by the president is growing nicely,” Doni said, as heavy fog lurked over the high ground.
A community nursery here in Kertasari subdistrict has been hard at work planting 47 different species of tree seedlings to help resuscitate a landscape that has fallen into grave condition.
The source of the Citarum River is found beneath the foothills of Mount Wayang in Indonesia’s West Java province. Around 11,000 families grow vegetables in these uplands for a few dollars a day, with much of the produce trucked down the valley to feed around 7 million people living in and around Bandung, the province’s largest city.
Further downstream, three hydroelectric dams, some fishing grounds and countless irrigation sources help provide basic needs for the 50 million residents of Indonesia’s most populous province.
But the Citarum River, which at almost 300 kilometers (190 miles) from source to mouth is West Java’s longest river, is considered one of the world’s most polluted water courses. Vast structures of plastic waste and toxic chemicals have for decades choked what used to be a safe source of drinking water.
The Citarum flows through a densely populated area in Bandung. The city of 2.7 million people is the biggest culprit in the river’s pollution, according to the Citarum task force, but pollution sources are manifold. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Concern over the Citarum is nothing new. Reforestation was identified as a key upriver measure for Prokasih, an early government cleanup program dating back to 1989. In 2005, the Asian Development Bank provisionally approved a $500 million, 15-year plan to rehabilitate the Citarum. It called for scores of individual interventions, spanning community empowerment to data collection, but much of the groundwork wasn’t completed.
In 2018, President Widodo initiated Citarum Harum (“Fragrant Citarum”), a fresh rehabilitation program to transform the troubled river into a source of potable water by 2025. As part of the scheme, the president ordered more than 7,000 soldiers to remove garbage clogging the waterway.
Forestry scientists report that Indonesia’s government is increasingly relying on community groups like the nursery here run by 36-year-old Yusuf Efendi to meet ambitious tree-planting targets.
“Without community involvement and behavioral changes, how can this kind of ambition be realized?” Doni said before leaving the nursery.
Retired army general Doni Manardo visited Kertasari in March as part of his efforts to ensure the Citarum cleanup program runs smoothly. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Some sections of the Citarum are inundated with garbage, such as this location in Baleendah subdistrict south of Bandung proper. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Yusuf told Mongabay that drainage capacity at higher ground has been stretched owing to land clearing by farmers, itself a product of unclear zoning.
“Planting here has been difficult,” he said. “Not so much because the weather is a factor, but because of the human factor.”
Further downriver from Yusuf’s tree-planting sites, evidence of pollution and other impacts remain all too apparent.
Children no longer learn to swim in the river. Water testing has previously detected fecal coliform bacteria at levels 5,000 times the safe limit. In Ciwalengke, an area on the outskirts of Bandung, local people still see effluents from textile and garment factories flowing into tributaries. Water samples collected by Indonesia’s environment ministry have found heavy metals such as mercury, among other dangerous contaminants. And the decline in fish stocks has deprived fishers of an income and households of a key source of protein.
“The average fish catch can be up to 5 kilograms [11 pounds] a day,” said Kuswara, a local fisherman who spends much of his day wrestling with wide nets by the Batujajar Bridge in western Bandung.
Kuswara uses a net to catch fish on the Citarum in Batujajar. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
A woman bathes her younger sister with water from a reservoir that fed by a river contaminated with household waste in Ciwalengke village. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
But catch volume depends on water quality, and sometimes the 60-year-old returns home empty-handed. Various fish species are increasingly hard to find for fishers like Kuswara, who makes around 15,000 rupiah per kilo of fish, or about 46 U.S. cents per pound. Fish farmers in the Saguling and Cirata reservoirs often report losses from suspected metal contamination, presumed to originate from waste pipes concealed by factories.
Ramalis Sobandi, a researcher with the Bandung-based Tunas Nusa Foundation, said fieldwork in this section of the river has found elevated levels of child stunting. Children deprived of adequate nutrition in their early years run a higher risks of developing chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
“In the rainy season [the river] is contaminated with wastewater and heavy metals,” Ramalis said. “There’s residue from fertilizer, from factories, and from households.”
A 2016 report by Greenpeace found almost 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of rice fields were contaminated by heavy metals.
Farmers tend to vegetable crops in Kertasari. Nearly half of the 11,000 families in the upper Citarum area are landless agricultural laborers. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Household waste is another major source of toxicity in the river. Around 200,000 families living in the Citarum watershed are estimated to dump their wastewater directly into the river. Anecdotal reports of septic tanks being flushed out into the river are common.
For Riki Waskito, the risks flowing down the Citarum through Majalaya subdistrict can be more immediate. On an afternoon toward the end of the rainy season, Riki observed fast-shifting weather patterns.
“Weather: rain; location: Cibereum-Kertasari; heavy intensity, duration 5-10 minutes; source: eyewitness,” he wrote to his network in the Siaga Warga WhatsApp group.
Riki, 45, has watched flash floods lay waste to property in this area of Bandung for decades.
“Flooding is a constant problem in the area where we live,” he said. “We have to adapt.”
The community group Riki belongs to draws on data published by an array of government bodies — the meteorology agency, the Bandung Institute of Technology’s climate lab, even the national aeronautics agency — to help communicate risks to local populations.
Residents paddle a boat down a flooded street in Bojongasih village. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Riki Waskito uses his phone to monitor water levels on a tributary of the Citarum in Majalaya subdistrict. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Estimates vary, but the amount of solid household waste generated in the city of Bandung is said to be around 1,500-1,600 tons per day. Only around two-thirds of this is subject to any waste-management processing, with the remainder dumped into the river.
In total, the government estimates that 1,500 tons of solid waste enter the Citarum River every day.
Other innovative community groups have coalesced to plug the large gaps in waste processing left by local governments. Sungai Watch, an NGO established in 2020 by three French siblings, has recruited around 1,000 young volunteers to install 100 trash-collecting barriers at various points of the Citarum.
“The key is to build responsible waste management,” said M. Bijaksana Junerosano, director of the NGO Waste4Change.
A backhoe grapples with garbage in the Cikapundung River, a tributary of the Citarum. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Bijaksana said no country could realistically solve the issue of waste in less than 10 years.
“Actually, this waste problem is not a technology problem,” he said. “The formula already exists — the question is more about being brave and whether or not to seriously apply the formula. This is more about leadership and political will.”
Taken to task
Shandy heads the command center for the West Java government’s Citarum task force’s command center. He spends his days watching a mosaic of screens displaying indicators pouring in from sections of the river where Yusuf, Riki, Bijaksana and thousands of volunteers are working to breathe life back into the Citarum.
“The basic concept is to accelerate,” Harum said in an interview in March. “The most important thing is to make decisions.”
Shandy monitors Citarum data on a row of computer screens at the task force command center in Bandung. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
The Citarum flows through Bojongsoang subdistrict in southern Bandung. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Civil servants in khaki shirts monitor water-quality indicators sent in from 15 detection sites, which they use to assess progress on the 13 initiatives mandated by the Citarum Harum program. These plans are set for completion in 2025, when the seven-year cycle of the president’s 2018 commitment expires. What happens next remains unclear.
Funding from the state budget to clean up the Citarum was cut from the original allocation in 2020 and 2021.
“If the environment is already damaged as in this case it’s very hard,” said Prima Mayaningtyas, the head of the West Java environmental office. “Not to mention the amount of funding that is required, which is vast.”
As climate change leads to increasingly frequent bouts of extreme weather, scientists say rivers will face greater risks of reduced flow during periods of drought and uncontrolled torrents during rainy seasons.
Dony Manardo observes a magnolia tree planted by President Widodo in 2018 to mark the start of the Citarum Harum program. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
A man picks through trash on the banks of the Citarum in Rancamanyar, south of Bandung city. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
A tributary of the Citarum flows through a residential area in the Gedebage neighborhood of Bandung city. The conversion of agricultural land has continued apace in Java, the world’s most densely populated island. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Shandy, left, at the command center in Bandung. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
The Citarum’s upstream watershed is seen from the air in Kertasari. Image by Donni Iqbal/Mongabay.
Children play amid garbage in the Citarum in 2017. During the rainy season much of the trash is washed away as the flow of water from upstream increases, but the risk of flooding grows as well. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
Locals welcome West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil (seated on the left in the front boat) on the banks of the Cisangkuy Floodway last November. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
The Cikapundung River, a tributary of the Citarum flows through Bandung, Indonesia’s fourth-most populous city. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
The 2018 executive fiat that established the Citarum Harum project made rehabilitation of the watershed the responsibility of the central government. In practice, the governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, shoulders much of the political responsibility for a project that is paramount to millions of the province’s 50 million population.
In an interview with Mongabay, the governor, who oversees the Citarum task force, said West Java residents will see improved water quality within two years as officials enforce industry compliance with waste standards.
“In addition, we are implementing communal livestock waste management, as well as tackling the behavior among people who often throw garbage and household waste directly into river bodies,” Ridwan said.
Governor Ridwan Kamil looks over the newly constructed Cisangkuy Floodway, meant to drain excess water during periods of high inundation, in Bojongkunci to the south of Bandung. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
The governor said rehabilitation of West Java’s longest river had become a high political priority, adding that policymakers were applying greater focus more broadly on the impacts of climate change.
“In the early days the political will to improve environmental conditions was in the end eroded by political bargaining,” Ridwan said. “Especially [among] leaders who focused on economic growth and ignored sustainability.”
High in the hills of Mount Wayang, Yusuf was drenched with sweat as he inspected the growth of seedlings supplied by his grassroots organization. The group has supplied 3 million seedlings to the Citarum task force overseen by Governor Ridwan. Local residents were given the trees to plant for free, including 110,000 coffee seedlings.
“The concept is sincere,” Yusuf said. “The principle is that it is not how much is planted, but how much will grow.”
Banner image: Residents paddle a boat down a flooded street in Bojongasih village. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published in a five-part series published here, here, here, here and here on our Indonesian site in June 2022.
Chemicals, Community Development, Community-based Conservation, Drinking Water, Ecosystem Restoration, Environment, Farming, Featured, Fish, Fishing, Flooding, Forestry, Forests, Governance, Land Use Change, Natural Resources, Nutrient Pollution, Poisoning, Politics, Pollution, Rainforests, Reforestation, Restoration, Rivers, Tropical Forests, Waste, Water Crisis, Water Pollution, Water Scarcity
Could a solution to Rome’s perpetual trash crisis really be in sight? Mayor Roberto Gualtieri would like to think so.ROME — For years now, nothing has symbolized the fall of Rome more than its garbage crisis. A trash menagerie of wild boars, violent sea gulls and rats convene to feast on the capital’s overflowing debris. Early this summer, a spate of suspicious blazes at garbage plants and scrapyards — literal dumpster fires — darkened the skies, choked the air, and raised the specter of arson and organized crime.Then, when it seemed the stench of Rome’s garbage troubles could get no worse, a dispute over building a new incinerator for the city emerged as the stated reason for a political mutiny that brought down the national unity government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi in July.On the day of the revolt, as he monitored the unfolding political drama from his office overlooking the Roman forum, Rome’s mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, seemed bemused by the role he and his city’s garbage problem had played in the government’s unexpected collapse. “Formally, the reason is me,” he said.At least Mr. Gualtieri, a veteran of leftist politics, emerged from the wreckage with the authority to fast track the building of a roughly 600 million euro, or about $601 million, waste-to-energy plant for Rome, which he hopes will allow him to succeed where others had failed.“It is not rocket science,” he said. “It’s garbage.”But garbage, and the degradation of Rome that it symbolizes, is a force not to be taken lightly. Even in an oft-sacked city that has seen it all over the centuries, where people have more recently grown accustomed to self-immolating buses, potholes as deep as water wells and myriad other indignities, the garbage — pervasive, pungent and unrelenting — has become the true metric of Rome’s decline.Trash piled next to an overturned dumpster in the Pigneto neighborhood of Rome in July. The garbage issue has stymied recent mayors and even touched off a national political shake-up.Alessandro Penso for The New York TimesSince Rome closed its sprawling Malagrotta landfill, among Europe’s largest, as an environmental disaster in 2013, trash has overwhelmed two mayors, including Mr. Gualtieri’s predecessor, Virginia Raggi of the Five Star Movement, the party that touched off the rebellion that brought down the national government.In 2018, prosecutors sequestered the landfill — owned by a businessman dubbed “er monnezzaro,” or King of Garbage — for failing to contain its toxic spillage. No actual garbage has been dumped there for years, but its treatment plant was still being used to process up to 1,500 tons of garbage a day, before being shipped elsewhere.That is, before it went up in flames this summer.“An enormous plume, gray,” Luigi Palumbo, the court-appointed manager of the landfill, said as he recalled the toxic blaze and cloud that closed nearby preschools and summer camps and laced parts of central Rome with an acrid odor.“It’s unknown where it started,” he said as he approached the plant, its concrete scorched and its melted aluminum panels hanging over the building like carpets hung out to dry.He turned to a burned heap of garbage that had been inside the plant. It was filled with thousands of scorched and bulging plastic bags, melted plastic fruit crates, stray cloths and tires and cans. It, too, has now been sequestered as evidence — but of what, no one seems quite sure.Damage to the Malagrotta processing plant, which caught fire this summer. A landfill at the site was closed in 2013 because of environmental concerns.Alessandro Penso for The New York TimesThe Malagrotta blaze was not an isolated incident, but one of a rash of trash fires that broke out around the city this summer.Mayor Gualtieri sought to sidestep the theory that “there is a conspiracy to stop me,” and his incinerator, by preserving a system in which myriad players, some of them shadowy, profited from Rome’s garbage crisis. But, he added, “of course you consider this possibility, how was it possible this really is happening exactly when we are trying to …” Then he stopped himself.He noted a well-established connection between waste management and criminal enterprises. Experts had determined it was “not self-combustion,” he said. “So that was man made.”And it has exacerbated Rome’s already noxious disposal problem.Rome now has to ship its garbage at high cost to plants outside the city, in what Mr. Gualtieri said was a drain on its resources, a contributor to pollution and possibly a favor to the interests of underworld elements who benefit from Rome’s sanitation paralysis.But while prosecutors continue to investigate the fires, the greatest challenge to cleaning up Rome may be the city itself.A junkyard that caught fire in Rome early last month.Alessandro Penso for The New York TimesRome had “little sense of responsibility for its own garbage, because it’s always thought that public things, being public, belong to no one,” said Paola Ficco, an environmental lawyer who edits Rifiuti, or Waste, a journal about laws regarding garbage. “And we forget that, being public, it’s all of ours.”In the meantime, she added, Rome was a mess, with high grass and garbage everywhere. “It’s a jungle,” she said. “Only boa constrictors are missing. Then we’ll have it all.”Mr. Gualtieri, himself a Roman, acknowledged that his city bred unique character traits. Romans tended to have “behaviors that we find that are not good,” he said, when it came to throwing out the garbage.Restaurants often loaded up bins reserved for the public. The public had a tendency to respond to the packed bins by balancing trash bags on top of them, like a vile Jenga game, or throwing garbage at their sides, forming archipelagos of uncollected trash that attracted all sorts of interesting fauna.But even while the burned plant remains out of commission, the mayor is confident that the new incinerator, on which construction is set to begin next year, and the introduction of tougher fines for a variety of infractions would create a more civilized Roman context. Within it, he said, Romans would become “more sensible about doing their part” and give “the best and not the worst.”Mayor Roberto Gualtieri is overseeing construction of a waste-to-energy incinerator expected to start operation in 2025. He is also cracking down on municipal employees as part of a three-phase plan to combat the garbage issue.Alessandro Penso for The New York TimesAs a former economy minister, he had personally helped procure billions of euros in European Union funds for Italy, with a significant chunk for Rome and other plants in the city’s waste plan. He spoke of an additional 1.4 billion euros from the Italian government to help prepare for pilgrims visiting the city and the Vatican during the 2025 Holy Year as if it were a done deal. And he already had success in attracting private investors to finance the new incinerator.“Money is not the problem,” he said.The system is.The mayor presented an organizational chart of AMA, a company that, among other things, manages collection of solid waste in Rome, and of which the city is the sole shareholder. He said that under previous administrations, AMA had changed chief executive officers five times in seven years, had become inflated with patronage jobs and had directed the majority of resources to garbage collection areas where it was not needed. Last winter, Rome paid bonuses to its workers just to show up for work during Christmas time.“This is a joke,” he said. “This should be studied in university, what you should not do.” Overhauling AMA was a part of the mayor’s three-phase plan to clean up the city.He said the city will have actually hired about 650 people by the end of the year to clean the streets while cracking down on an army of loafers. Officials had begun conducting thousands of checks on employees who perpetually present doctors’ notes certifying that they can only do desk work.“You can see people heal,” the mayor said of the spot checks. “Miracles.”Workers at the Malagrotta waste processing center last month. Despite the fire, parts of the site remain operational.Alessandro Penso for The New York TimesIn the second stage, within two years, the city would put new dumpsters on Rome’s streets, and a third phase would begin in 2025, toward the end of his five-year term, when the waste-to-energy incinerator is expected to come on line.When he campaigned for the job, Mr. Gualtieri said he did not think such a plant would be necessary and that he would improve things by Christmas. He said that it was only when he took office that he understood the mind-boggling reality of Rome’s garbage. His critics, chief among them Five Star, which opposed the new incinerator on environmental grounds, consider him a hypocrite.But, as summer vacation ends and the city fills back up with Romans and their trash, he argues the waste-to-energy incinerator will improve Rome’s environment and be profitable, an incentive he said for investors to get in on the ground floor.All of Rome, he insisted, was on the brink of a new Golden Age.“I can tell you why,” he said, anticipating the natural Roman skepticism and calling Rome an undervalued asset. “It has a lot of margin for improvements.”Dumpsters filled to the brim in the Pigneto neighborhood. The mayor plans to put new ones on the street as part of his trash-fighting plan.Alessandro Penso for The New York Times