A Tour of Contrasts in Sicily – The Litter Scourge

Guidebooks often describe Sicily as a “land of contrasts.”  I wonder if this is what they mean:

Beautiful lovingly cultivated land – olive groves, carob trees, fields of hay, pastures of wildflowers. 

olive and carob trees in Sicily

Across the street there is a huge pile of rubbish. 

litter in Sicily

At first glance I see an old refrigerator, several tires and mattresses, a broken toilet. The most alarming item is an old water tank made of Eternit, which contains asbestos – not dangerous, mind you, unless it is broken or cracked.  This tank is shattered.  

Not far from here, heading towards the coast on a birdwatching trip, I stop to ask a local for directions. He explains where to turn left by the huge pile of litter.  The way he describes it, the pile is a permanent fixture.  I arrive at the marshes where Europe’s largest variety of migratory birds come to rest, among thousands of used tires and unspeakable amounts of  rubbish. Revolted by the filth, I turn the car around and escape.

 flamingoes in Sicily

On the way back home along my favorite back road, the tiny farms are neatly framed in litter problem in Sicilyhand-chiseled stone walls. At the corner of two walls, someone has dumped a pile of trash, and in the midst of it lies a dead pig. 

During the time I have lived in Sicily, I have seen the litter phenomenon worsen.  Before, it was limited to certain areas of Sicily- the poorest and least cared for- but now the problem is everywhere, including our formerly pristine province of Ragusa, known among Sicilians as “the island on the island.”  Sicily is a unique place with astonishing archeological treasures, splendid countryside, stunning baroque towns, wonderful traditional foods, and yet it is being continually violated and abused.  This makes me furious.

San Giorgio Church, Modica

Citizens of Sicily, mayors of the towns of Sicily, heads of the provinces, governor of the region, all the tourist offices, this is what I think: There is no excuse for this.  But maybe I am wrong, so please, Sicilians explain this trash to me. 

Explain it to Unesco, the organization that has placed many Sicilian sites on their World Heritage List.  Explain it to the tourist, who comes to enjoy your food grown in this very countryside scarred with rubbish and toxic waste.  When a visitor asks me why there is so much litter, should I respond: Sicilians are uncivilized pigs?  Do you have a better explanation? 

garbage and litter in Sicily

I write this post because I love Sicily, and I want to welcome visitors to this island that is my home.  But there are times I also hate Sicily, when its apathy and ignorance are too much to bear in silence.

42 thoughts on “A Tour of Contrasts in Sicily – The Litter Scourge

  1. I read this with interest as I think the same. I have visited Sicily 3 times.My partner is Sicilian. The first occasion I visited I thought what a beautiful place but such a shame about the rubbish everywhere.Lets hope it changes.

    1. @Simon- I am hoping to get some local attention on this matter and eventually work with a school program. It’s a long uphill battle but it must be done – I am personally in favor of heavy fines, too!

  2. Unfortunately , as my uncle said to me there are ignorant pigs who care little about anything other than their own back yards. He recycles anything no longer in use in his home goes to the farm -a sink becomes a trough to wash fruit , the old bed mattres springs have jasmine and beans growing up them, a kinda live wall or they were thrown under a group of olive trees a couple of blankets instant bed.
    I also had commented on this while looking out at the belverdere , beautiful vista look down the cliff a mattress, and old stove.It was horrifying to me, why does the city not retrieve it there are garbage men, he said they don’t want to do it, I said hey it’s what they get paid for …No………I guess not.

  3. good job anita… as an expat i have been exposed to the “trashy” side as well. We all want to make italy seem like a dream but someone’s got to tell the truth sometimes. Beautiful blog!

  4. You words ring so true as an expat living in the Catania area. This place is dirty. The recent noticeable improvement when the government ministers come for a visit was infuriating – why should the city only be clean for important officials!!?!?!? This also means the commune is capable of running a cleaner city with some effort, don’t you think?

    1. @Karen- I agree, I hate it when everything gets cleaned up for some special event, i.e. some polticians coming to town-But in the end the local citizens are either apatheitc or too frustrasted to think that they can make a change.

  5. Hi Anita, I’m a sicilian and I ‘m from Catania. I hope my english will be not very bad ^_^
    You have a lot of raison but I assure the most our people wants to change the actual situation. I recognize the bad situation and, after many effors, finally, we are starting with the recycle, the Commune is now distributing eco bags. It’s a small beginning, a small step but now a sicilian knows the reason why we must have clean our town.
    Our roadsrecently are been closed, most of them were the major and important but many shops now are closing for this raison. The mayor, and politicians in Italy, are “good” for only to spend and squander our money. Let’s strike, we rebel…nothing…many italian families, sicilian families are very poor and they arrive at the end of the month with no money to support their children. The mayor does nothing, and having no ecological places, many of them do not think twice to throw the rubbish in the sides of roads or in campaign, and this really hurts me…
    I hope this Italy, this Sicily will change, because I love nature, food, sea, my Etna … my country and I will try in every way to make it clear.
    God bless you ^_^

    Annalisa

    1. Hello Annalisa – Thanks for your reply and your English is excellent. It’s great that Catania is slowly starting to recycle- that is certainly an important step. A clean well-kept city is an invitation for tourists to linger (as well as being an everyday pleasure for the inhabitants) and creates jobs and well-being for the community . I understand that corrupt or incompetent politicians are at the heart of many of Sicily’s problems, but average Sicilians have got to stop throwing up their hands in despair and work to change their world. It is up to the citizens to recogize and find good leaders, and vote them into office. I know Sicily has many problems, which make me sad or often furious, as it is a land that I dearly love, yet it is continually abused by those in power and its own citizens as well.

  6. I have found this site and read with interest all the comments about the garbage situation in Sicily. I have just returned four days early from my holiday there, disgusted at the appalling lack of respect shown by a population that professes to ‘love it’s own country’ and yet – literally in many instances – proceeds to defecate on its own doorstep. Every single roadside is heaped with mess, from Etna to Taormina, from Catania to Syracusa. As things stand, I will never return & will encourage others not to visit. Why spend time and money travelling to a location where it’s own population clearly couldn’t care less, when there are so many other equally beautiful places in the world that offer a filth free experience. No, I’m sorry Sicily, but until you learn to respect yourselves and your environment you will not get another penny of my hard earned money.

    1. Hello Phil,

      I am sorry to hear that your time in Sicily was so negatively impacted by litter. There are certainly areas where it is worse than others, though I can assure you that there are many beautiful litter-free roads and clean towns as well – I know because I was with a group of visitors today who were gasping at Sicily’s beauty and the loving care of the countryside. However, litter continues to be a problem and your reaction shows that it has a negative effect on tourism and local authorities should take note! I personally believe that Sicily is worth a visit for manay many reasons, despite the litter, but I also hope that your voice gets heard by those in charge in Sicily-

  7. I have read all these comments with great interest and think you are admirable to bring this problem to everyone’s attention Anita! It is so hard to criticise something we love- rather like being derogatory about a family member
    .Sadly it isn’t just Sicily but the mainland too that is affected by the littering problem. I returned on Friday from a 2 week holiday on the Amalfi coast.The beaches were filthy unless a hotel owned a private strip, which was then manicured neatly so you could lay in ranks nearly touching the person next to you. The public beaches were an a filthy, squalid disgrace, covered with litter of every sort with broken glass a huge problem. We watched an idyllic scene of local fishermen fishing from a jetty in Maiori one evening. They then kicked their beer cans, glass bottle and plastic bait boxes into the sea.From high on the coast road we could see the Med awash with rubbish as we walked to Minori.
    I hired a car and travelled over to the East coast, equally appalled by the filthy towns and beaches. To my joy I discovered Lecce and wallowed in a clean city for a day. Sadly every other town and roadside was littered with filth and squalor. I drove nearly 1000 km and I have to say the filth sadly detracted from the beautiful churches and cathedrals, old town squares and beautifully tended vegetable gardens and lemon groves.Even the harbour at Gallipoli was full of old tyres, mattresses, bottles, bags and polysterene, clearly visible from the harbour walls. What a pity this is the image I take away of Italy and share with others.

    I can only agree with Phil. I have come away with a very negative view of Italy and shall never return and would actively encourage others to stay away.I work too hard to give my money to people who have a total disregard for their environment and care little about the impact on others.
    Wake up Italy! Somewhere money is being syphoned off at the top and not reaching local services and amenities. Couple this with apathy and you have a recipe for disaster. It strikes me Italy is a country with a BIG problem and the population need to speak out and gird themselves into action.

    1. Dear Jill,

      Thank you for your forthright comments about the litter problem that strongly impacted your vacation in Italy. Unfortunately, it is most prevalent in southern Italy, where you travelled and it is a problem that touches all levels of society in the south, from the politicians in charge down to the local citizenry that keep their own home sprkling clean yet throws rubbish with careless abandon. That said, I would stll encourage visitors to come to Italy as there are many positive aspects for the vacationer, from culture to food, plus lots of very clean countryside and well-cared for towns. I am so glad you enjoyed the city of Lecce, and there are many other lovely clean gems in Puglia. However, litter is a serious problem that needs to be addressed!

  8. I have just returned from Sicily and share the frustrations and comments made by you. We spent two weeks trying to find the gems and instead felt all the time we were in the wrong place. Please let me know where we should have gone within Sicily to find the beauty and essence of the place. As like other comments we can find no reason to return or to recommend others to.

    1. Hi Jane, I am sorry to hear that you did not find the beauty and essence of Sicily during your travels – I assure you it IS there, but you have to get off the main roads and it doesn’t help that signage is often non-existent. I recommend the southeast corner of Sicily as one of the loveliest. Yes, you can still be stunned by the occasional piles of discarded mattresses et al, which is in such sharp contrast to the carefully tended fields, hand-chiseled stone walls and beautiful architecture. With all of its negative points, Sicily still captured my heart – I love its colors and scents as well as its amazing archeological sites, which is why I am willing to struggle to try and preserve the good stuff and clean-up the bad stuff. I hope you get a chance to return one day – let me know if you do and I’ll point you in the right direction!

  9. I too have just returned from a holiday in Sicily and was horrified by the amount of flytipping & rubbish dumped on the road sides. When I mentioned this on Trip Advisor I was shot down in flames for daring to comment on it & was told the reason is that the country is bankrupt, so it’s hard luck for the tourists who don’t like it.

    1. Claire- While there are plenty of clean places in Sicily, it is indeed disturbing to see the rubbish, and I do not believe that it is caused by a “bankrupt country”. Anita

  10. We have just returned from a weeks holiday in Sicily. We had a lovely time there: enjoyed the food, architecture and particularly the natural heritage. Bird watching was primarily the reason for our visit and we were not disappointed as there were many migrants. I agree that the piles of rubbish are a major negative and spoils what was overall a very positive experience of the people and their environs. There is also a major problem of widespread burning. Though some of the fires are no doubt started accidentally, arson , I’m informed, is responsible for much of the burning. It was also suggested to me that a private company is contracted to extinquish the fires, it could be argued that its in their commercial interest that there are so many areas set alight? Sicily is a lovely island with so much going for it. I believe the best way to deal with these endemic problems is for visitors to express to the Sicilians, the positives of their island but also deplore the litter and widespread burnings.

    1. Joe – I am glad you were able to appreciate some of the positive aspects of Sicily, and I have personally experienced some magical days birdwatching at vendicari. I agree that we need to express the positives and negatives to Sicilians and the authorities. Unfortunately fires are not a problem only in Sicily – this summer a huge fire devastated the pine woods near the Marina di Grosseto on the Tuscan coast, and one man was caught in the act of setting a fire there.

  11. We have just returned from a weeks holiday in Sicily. We had a lovely time there: enjoyed the food, architecture and particularly the natural heritage. Bird watching was primarily the reason for our visit and we were not disappointed as there were many migrants. I agree that the piles of rubbish are a major negative and spoils what was overall a very positive experience of the people and their environs. There is also a major problem of widespread burning. Though some of the fires are no doubt started accidentally, arson , I\\\’m informed, is responsible for much of the burning. It was also suggested to me that a private company is contracted to extinquish the fires, it could be argued that its in their commercial interest that there are so many areas set alight? Sicily is a lovely island with so much going for it. I believe the best way to deal with these endemic problems is for visitors to express to the Sicilians, the positives of their island but also deplore the litter and widespread burnings.

  12. I too have just returned from a holiday in Sicily. I was apalled by the rubbish & flytipping on the roadsides. I mentioned this on Trip Advisor & was shot down in flames & told the reason for this is because Sicily is bankrupt & tourists should basically like it or lump it.

  13. We have just returned from a week in Giardini Naxos and wish we had seen this site before booking the holiday.We were disgusted at the litter all over the place,bins overflowing and unemptied while we were there

  14. Anita- Democracy must come to the fore in Sicily.
    There is no point in ‘pussy-footin’ about. Sicilians either have cojones or not. It is blatantly obvious that the few are dictating to the many and mass protest is the only solution. Sicilians-though your autonomous – take full ourship of your beautiful island -stand up to the bullies!!!!

  15. I was planning on visiting Sicily for the first time next month but after reading this I’m now considering canceling the trip and going someplace else.

  16. I’ve have lived in and out of Sicily since 1993, the trash has gotten worse. I moved back in July 2012 and it is to the point now that it is one of the reasons I will be leaving. It saddens me every morning I drive to work.

    Unfortunately I see Italy, especially Sicily, regressing socially. The petty crime is getting worse, as is the driving, which wasn’t great to start with. I see more Sicilians turning to alcohol. The graffiti in Catania is everywhere, and Rome also. It has become uncivilized, as if it were a war torn third world nation.

    1. Stacy – Your experience is saddening, but I think it depends on where you live in Sicily. Around Modica, where I live, we have far less of these problems, which is why the dumping of trash in the middle of pristine countryside is so jarring- Some of your observations may well be diue to the economic and political crisis, which is not confimed to Sicily, but has had ill effects all over Italy.

  17. I have an apartment in Pizzo, Calabria and love the place. However, some of the surrounding Towns and Countryside is a rubbish strewn tragedy.
    We have driven down beautiful country lanes and been eulogising about the countryside, only to be met by a pile of ever spreading rubbish.
    The people here are so friendly, kind and proud, so I don’t understand the lack of shame at the state of the roadsides and Towns.
    It has to be said that Pizzo is pretty well kept, but if you want an example of the most depressing, filthy and un dignified place I have had the misfortune to drive through, try Nocera Marina. The rubbish is so high and spread out that the locals have set the large Bins and the rubbish on fire. The stink takes some time to clear from your nostrils.

    Come on Italy, you have got it all, but you are in danger of losing your dignity and the admiration of those who come here.

  18. I hadn’t been in Sicily since I was a child. I ended going, spur of the moment, with my wife in 2002. One thing that perplexed me and really PISSED me off was seeing the garbage strewn across the country side, streets, wherever. I asked my relatives about it and they shrugged their shoulders, as if to say that’s the way it is here. I had never visited such a beautiful place but at the same time dirty in all of my life…..and I live in NYC!

  19. Ciao Anita!
    Like so many others who have commented here, I too am disgusted by what I see in Sicily.
    My wife and I live outside of Catania and we are reminded daily of the contrasts that make up this place. The beauty and the filth, the kindhearted and the thieves, and the (seemingly few) people like yourself who care about this place contrasted with an astounding trend of apathy.
    I want very much to say that I am able to look past the negative things and see the positive, but that just isn’t the case most of the time. I will continue to make the best of each day that I am here, but the truth is that I look forward to returning home to the US.
    Thank you for taking the time to write about this. I sincerely hope that someone like myself will see this and realize that they are not the only ones who feel this way.

  20. Just got back from another five weeks visiting family in Sicily. Italians are noted for dressing to impress (bella figura). They walk the lungomare (seafront) in the eveving in their finest. Yet in the background are piles of their garbage left on every road. Stinking piles of houshild garbage torn about by wild dogs and feral cats, old tolets, sink, plastic bottles etc. A once poor culture that abandoned their homelond by the millions to live elsewhere. They probably did’nt care about the garbage. But the world has changed. Sicily has much to be proud of and they ought to dress their island to impress. For, surely, the people of Sicily have some of the niciest people, good food, excellent wine, beaches etc. If they ever clean it up they will have even more to be proud of.

  21. I love Sicily, I love Sicilians. I HATE the way they drop litter and tip old mattresses and worse all over the place. It’s heartbreaking ! There needs to be a massive campaign to raise awareness but I don’t see it happening.
    It’s so sad, especially because it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

  22. I have been to Sicily 3 times to visit family in a small town in the center of the island. I love it there and have never noticed trash as a problem. I also love Palermo, and will return as often as I can!

  23. We first came to Sicily four years ago and were delighted by the beauties of Noto and Syracusa. We noticed some rubbish- strewn towns then, but thought it was just local to them. We decided to come back this year but now wish we hadn’t. We are staying in a holiday cottage to the north of Catania in the foothills of Etna and have been amazed by the amount and extent of the rubbish. Every road has rubbish along its edges and every few yards there are huge piles of fly-tipping. The smell of decay is always in the air and wheelie-bins are almost non-existent. It really has to be seen to be believed and we just cannot understand how people in a supposedly civilised country can possibly allow such a situation to exist. We find it utterly depressing and it has put us off going out to visit places. Even those described as beautiful are full of refuse.
    On the second day of our visit we were sitting on the terrace outside our cottage (not cheap, by the way) when a large rat appeared from a hole in the wall, ran across the terrace and disappeared into another hole in a wall. He has appeared two or three times a day ever since. When we told the proprietor he explained it was because we were ‘a campagna’. Aside from the fact that we weren’t really ‘a campagna’, more in the extended suburbs of Catania, I suspect that the piles of rubbish everywhere might better account for his presence. And what does this tell us one ordinary person’s attitude to rubbish? The fact that someone renting a holiday property is largely unconcerned by the presence of rats really says it all.
    I have now read up on the net about the problem, and can see that there are many potential causes. It is also true that the rubbish issue is widespread across southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but it’s hard not to draw the reluctant conclusion that the local inhabitants are happy with living in such filth as they contribute so much to it. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that a holiday in Sicily can be completely ruined by the ubiquitous rubbish. We will not be returning again until the problem is addressed and, as we are both in our sixties, I suspect that we will soon be leaving Sicily, never to return.

  24. My ggf came from Messina. I would hate to think that the place of my dreams is being littered on. I have noticed it to be getting worse here on the east coast of U.S. People have no manners, don’t care and can’t be bothered to be nice to fellow man. I think this would easily be stopped if there were public trash service available free or at low cost or just public stations with a big dumpster. Or have clean up days???. Surely the government will see that tourist dollars will be missing as I for one do not want to come visit a trash strewn island, I live here in this mess and I don\\\’t want to come to visit old relatives and see that. It would be too depessing. Don\\\’t they realize what a beautiful gift they have there???? Where is the PRIDE??

  25. Hi Anita. I have returned from a trip to Sicily and can only concur with all the observations submitted to your blog over the past few years. The country is still blighted by the most appalling litter problem and unfortunately it would put me off returning or you going to the south of Italy, if that is the same there.

  26. I am an Architect currently on a three week vacation with my family in the Catania region and I have been appalled to the point of devastation at the scene facing me on almost every road.

    I have been running daily along the lanes and tracks up mount Etna and have seen tons of rubbish strewn at roadsides and more importantly at the sides of people’s houses- it shows a blatant disregard for such a beautiful country.

    Regardless of the political situation and levels of poverty in the country people should not be dumping in their own backyards. Sicilians have a country with amazing natural resources and their forefathers have handed them amazing towns and cities with sensational baroque architecture but all i can see is a country that is deteriorating generation after generation. I recently discovered Marakech and would say that this African city cleaner and more cared for than this European destination.

    Sicilians should be ashamed of themselves and wake up to the fact that tourists choose places that are cared for by their people- the spiral downwards will continue unless they themselves act.

    I see no reason why the people can’t rally and clean up their country as we would do in the uk- in Sheffield (not the leanest city in England) we have groups who meet to clean the rivers and parks in an attempt to make the city a better place to visit. I appreciate Sicilians are poor and they maybe have more pressing things on their mind but surely the lure of the tourist dollar is worth working for.

    I for one will return with story’s of a country of bitter opposites- amazing scenery, beautiful architecture, food and wine but a vile and discusting lack of respect by Sicilians for their own landscape.

  27. Hi Anita, I am currently on my 7th trip to Italy and was interested to understand the reasons behind the rubbish. I am currently in Sicily and this is the worst case I have ever seen of rubbish everywhere. For the first time I have witnessed individuals disregard for their environment, dropping litter in their own lovely piazzas and town squares. I am staying in a very nice neighbourhood near Mondello where lawns are manicured, gardens are well tended but on the street outside their gate there are bins overflowing with rubbish. Solving this problem had to begin with I individuals not dropping litter and also picking up litter of others. Somebody has to set the example and then insist others follow. I would say that in the UK it very much frowned upon and actually embarrassing to be seen acting with such poor regard for others.
    I am very much used to the Italian way and attitude and mostly I love it but I would be reluctant to recommend Sicily in particular to others who would be very much put off by the rubbish and uncaring attitude.

  28. Just got back from a holiday in Sicily (stayed in Via Grande and visited Etna, Syracuse and Taormina) and was pretty horrified at the rubbish strewn everywhere – could hardly believe my eyes. Such a shame since it’s a lovely island

  29. I also live in Sicily, and my daughters visited me in 2007 and never came back. They felt it must be dangerous and crime ridden because of the trash and obvious disregard for the community.

    It is truly a shame that such a beautiful place will never receive the tourism opportunities it could have because people just don’t care. It costs nothing to pick up a piece of trash. My husband and I clean about 100 meters each way on our beach several times a year – just so we can better enjoy it. Our neighbors just watch. .

  30. We arrived at Catania airport and on leaving thought this is just a semi industrial area and soon the landscape will get better..it didn’t ..I was really shocked at how uncared for the whole costal region appears. The ugly concrete buildings covered in grafitti and the litter !
    We sometimes moan about our city of Manchester , but in comparison to Sicily its a litter free zone ..
    Fortunately we are staying in Taormina which is about the cleanest place we’ve been to , there is some pride here …but boy do you feel it in the pocket, and to find a good reasonable quality restaurant serving good food is a challenge .not uncommon to pay 100euro for dinner for 2
    I have just recently been to Northern Spain ( similar economic problems as Italy ) and ate fabulous food inc local wine for 15 euro/ head .
    We traveled up the coast north and then west and again were disappointed with what we saw . We found a deserted sandy beach but the whole area appeared un loved and shabby.
    The mountainous parts of the island are more interesting and the roads are reasonably well maintained . However still plenty of litter everywhere..
    It’s a real shame that the inhabitants of this island dont do more to look after its natural beauty .
    Andrew &Val
    Manchester

  31. I\\\’m really surprised so many people are turned off by Sicily. I could easily see through the garbage and enjoy all of its charm and beauty. The garbage situation was definitely frustrating as it\\\’s such a beautiful island full of friendly people, great food, great coffee, and great wine. I think in general when travelling to Italy one must keep an open mind, an open eye, be realistic about the social and political history etc.. Even the graffiti has a long history and is indicative of the people\\\’s political, social, or sporting situations. Skip the tourist traps, rent a car, talk to locals, take a walk and enjoy some lovely pistachio products, see etna, see the Turkish steps by the Sea, just stay open and maybe don’t over romanticize it. It’s beauty is everywhere. Where else do random nonas give you kisses?

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