COLD WAR

Rome’s Garbage Crisis Heats Up With Abandoned Fridges

As Rome’s determined new mayor tries to fight its eternal corruption, she’s up against an unlikely enemy: abandoned refrigerators piling up all over the city.

10.26.16 4:30 PM ET

ROME — The Eternal City has had its share of unwieldy invaders over the course of its long history. But perhaps none have been quite like its current fetid foe—old refrigerators that are being abandoned along its leafy boulevards and parks.

There are ice boxes floating in the Tiber River. Fridges in the grass along its ancient walls. In some areas, General Electrics, Smegs, and Whirlpools of all shapes, generations, and sizes are stacked up along the streets. Some are rusted right through. Others have been stripped of their doors and shelves.

And Rome’s new mayor Virginia Raggi is calling foul. She’s hinting the excess of oversize trash smells to her like a plot to discredit her attempts to clean up the city. In addition to the heavy appliances stacked on the sidewalks, she has been pointing to the city dumpsters that often sit empty while garbage bags pile up around them—which she calls an act of civil disobedience.

“I have never seen such heavy waste, sofas, and refrigerators, all abandoned on the street,” she told La Repubblica this week, suggesting it was no coincidence that people were not taking their trash to collection points but rather dumping them in plain sight. “It’s a bit strange that there are refrigerators that instead of being brought to the ecological islands are thrown near the dumpsters. It’s not an easy job to take them there and I don’t know how they even do it.”

The implication, of course, is angry waste-management workers were in on the scheme either by pretending to legitimately dump the trash or selling removal services that don’t exist. Either way, the fridge fiasco has earned its own Twitter fame as Romans tweet photos of the appliances under #frigo-gate for “fridge-gate.” There is even a tweet with Pope Francis carrying a fridge as his own cross to bear.

Raggi, who was sworn in as mayor on June 22, has not had a single day of relative peace since entering office. She is the first woman to lead the city and has become a paparazzi darling—despite the fact that having coffee on her balcony in her sweatsuit pajamas is about as risqué as anything she has done so far. She often responds by taking photos of the photographers, who then end up with a photo of her phone.

She has had little luck in appointing a clean cabinet. Her garbage czar, Paola Muraro, is a subject of intrigue for various conflicts of interest over her time as a consultant to the waste-management firm she is trying to straighten up.

Five of Raggi’s original cabinet members have also resigned in moves seemingly out of a House of Cards plot twist. At one point, a popular Twitter joke centered around Raggi resorting to dating app Tinder to find a suitable budget minister.

In September, she nixed Rome’s 2024 Olympic bid, citing priorities like fixing the cavernous potholes in the streets and improving the city’s dismal public transportation over hosting another Summer Games. This week, she faced ridicule after vowing to follow through with a campaign promise to build an aboveground cable-car system to try to ease traffic woes on the outskirts of the city. Underground transport has proven nearly impossible because of the wealth of buried ancient ruins. She has also met opposition for plans to invest in a functioning bike-exchange system (previous attempts have resulted in widespread theft) as well as a diaper service to help ease up on waste in city bins.

Raggi is the untested poster child of political ambition for comedian Beppe Grillo’s rambunctious Five-Star movement. Her success—or failure—as head of Italy’s capital city is a make-or-break moment for the anti-establishment party, which has never led a major city until now.

She took over after the previous mayor, Ignazio Marino, resigned over an expenses scandal from which he was later cleared of any wrongdoing. Marino uncovered the Mafia Capitale debacle that exposed a vast network of criminality that had been running the city’s contracts for waste management, public transportation, and migrant and refugee housing for years.

Failed attempts to clean up the system have created a vacuum that has kept Rome on its knees for many long months.

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And, it would seem, some of the remnants of corruption are still at play. However expedient it may be to blame the fridge fiasco on a frosty plot to discredit her noble attempts, the real reason is likely easily explained by the cessation of a shady contract that wasn’t renewed in the days before she came to office. On June 18, the city’s waste-management firm AMA stopped officially offering the service to collect oversize items from private homes, which was a dodgy scheme that often ended up lining the pockets of the collectors themselves, who arranged the transport privately. AMA executives, who resigned en masse when Raggi took over, stopped the service between the time she was elected and when she was sworn in. On Wednesday, she told reporters that she had no idea why that service was suspended, leading to a barrage of criticism and insults for how she is handling the city’s problems.

Still, the maverick mayor vows to forge on. Her sights are now set on Rome’s public transportation system which, she says, has many vehicles still in service that are too old to repair. “We know that we have to move a mountain. And we will do it, no problem. It will, of course, just take a bit of time,” she says, not quite invoking the famous words of Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici or “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Instead, she’s more realistic. “I'm not perfect at everything,” she says. “But I will beat the challenges of Rome.”