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What the Italians Do Best - Gelato, Pizza, and Recycling

Pop quiz.

Do you have a recycling bin?

I reckon most of you nodded your head, along with a couple of stragglers who were hesitant to say no. Well, what if I told you that there are countries in the world with such exhaustive municipal solid waste (MSW) management programs that each household receives FOUR bins for recyclables, let alone one. That means that in addition to the bright blue or red bin that says your community’s name and Department of Public Works’ (DPW) information in which you collect junk mail, plastic water bottles, and forgotten school assignments, there are three more containers to separate your recoverable materials into, to wheel out to the curb, and for which to remember collection dates. To the average American citizen that might sound like a major inconvenience, but to the people of Sardinia, an island region of Italy who have embraced this method, this comprehensive system is carrying them into a realistic and sustainable future which might just be what we need in the Western Hemisphere.

As a study abroad student through Northeastern University’s Dialogue of Civilizations program for 6 weeks, I learned firsthand the successes and obstacles of implementing such a complex strategy across a region of 9,000 square miles. I delved deep into the culture and identity of the Sardinian community that welcomed 18 other students and I with open arms, plenty of laughter, and delicious food. Here, I took classes that documented various approaches to MSW handling, listened to government ministers regarding the intricacies of their plans, questioned researchers of new solid waste management technologies, and toured facilities that turned used paper into packaging and food scraps into energy. As an Environmental Chemistry student, both the mechanical processes of treating waste on such a large scale as well as the economics and social influences that allowed such facilities to be feasible were interesting to understand.

Trash vehicle collects waste from the “yellow” waste stream - aluminum and glass - Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

As a nation of the European Union, Italy falls under the EU’s Waste Framework Directive which sets strict standards for the management of MSW. This includes a five-step waste hierarchy and incremental metrics that each nation state must reach to avoid penalties over the course of the next 30 years (“Waste Framework Directive”). To comply with such measures, Sardinia issued a comprehensive overhaul of their current waste management strategy in 2004 with the following headlines: a five-bin door-to-door separate collection system for each household, removal of communal street trash bins to encourage proper sorting, penalties for municipalities falling short of regional-issued targets, increase in recycling education, and rewards for municipalities that perform highly (Rosa). The results can be seen in the streets of cities like Cagliari today - various colored bins hanging on hooks on the side of houses, large locked dumpsters, and not a street can in sight - and also are represented in the numbers - a separate collection rate of 74% in 2020 (“Urban Waste, the ‘Punctual Rate’ Arrives in Sardinia”) which far surpassed the goal of 65% set by the EU Waste Framework Directive (“Waste Framework Directive”).

Waste collection bins hanging on side of residential unit - Cagliari, Sardinia

For Sardinians, the five-bin system separates waste into five streams: paper, plastic packaging, glass/aluminum, organic (food), and everything else (residual waste). Four out of five are recoverable streams that are sent to waste processing facilities to be recycled, anaerobically digested or composted, and residual waste is burned in a waste-to-energy plant. Residents are encouraged to comply as they are fined for placing waste in incorrect bins; in the hostel in which I was staying, there were a multitude of signs that displayed the proper sorting procedure for us to follow so as to avoid penalties. Surprisingly enough, these incentives were enough for most residents to follow the processes, and most municipalities to keep up high separate collection rates.

Plastic waste sorted by conveyor belts and compacted in bushels - Cagliari, Sardinia

If the five-bin system seemed exhaustive enough, their waste treatment strategy pales in comparison. Upon touring multiple recovery facilities, I learned that since various types of plastics are commingled in one bin, optical sorters are used to separate plastics based on chemical composition and color, one step in a long list of conveyor belts shuffling, pile gathering, and compacting to then be sold to manufacturers. I saw agricultural scraps on farms be used to generate energy and then placed in large windrows to be composted, and paper transformed to create a sellable product. Even with such intensive treatment, the increase in the amount and quality of recoverable material (thanks to separate collection) since 2004 means that recycling is an economically feasible business model for the region, a fact which then spurs even more waste diversion, bringing Sardinia to the top of the recycling podium.

Collection bins in a three-story residential building - Cagliari, Sardinia

These high rankings and strict measures seemed to be a source of pride for Sardinians. Tourists are very easily made aware of the guidelines and the successes of the system upon visiting the island in a similar way that I was. When I first entered the cobblestone streets and walked among the Renaissance architecture, I expected to find gelato shops and pizzerias, but in addition, I was welcomed to five brightly-colored bins hung outside of each house - red, yellow, green, blue, and brown. As I left the region, I had a better understanding of the issues affecting municipalities and the ways Sardinia conquered those in their plan. To me, Sardinia had started painting a masterpiece that began at the recycling bin and carried into the hearts of its residents, and I hope to recreate that phenomenon in my own community back home.


Rosa, Ferran. Zero Waste Europe, 2018, The Story of Sardinia, Case Study #10,


“Urban Waste, the ‘Punctual Rate’ Arrives in Sardinia.” L'Unione Sarda, 14 Apr. 2022,


“Waste Framework Directive.” Environment, European Commission,

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