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Dream of Italy and you’ll most likely be conjuring the rolling Tuscan hills, its pristine Alpine villages and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, but sometimes the reality is a little different. In August and September, the influx of travelers increases the amount of waste produced by at least a third, and the country’s tourism industry has a huge impact on all kinds of pollution, all year round, be it plastic waste or emissions from cars, heating and air-con. What are the country’s environmental hazards and what can a responsible traveler do to help?
You might not equate smog with Italy, but the country’s north often has air pollution levels that are considered ‘moderately unsafe’ by the WHO, though actually represent some of Europe’s most dangerous. The natural propensity of the Po Valley’s mountain framed basin to trap a deep blanket of fog from Turin and Milan to Padua and Verona and at times, even, the Venetian lagoon, has long been blamed for the north’s shocking winter air quality. But the region’s heavy industry, its reliance on cars and the toll of winter heating are in fact equal contributors to the problem.
If you’re seriously prone to respiratory problems, try to spend minimal time in these those low-lying northern cities in the colder months. You don’t need to skip winter in Italy all together though – instead head to Bolzano or Trento whose geographical setting and environmental initiatives see them as some of the country’s least polluted, or winter in Sardinia or the far south coast of Puglia. Check online sources such as IQAir or the World Air Quality Index for real time particulate indexes. And, if you want to do your bit to ease the problem, travel by train rather than car when you can.
Italians, like most of their European neighbors, have long equated bottled water with ‘health’, due to an antiquated suspicion of local water supplies, a dislike of the taste of their admittedly hard water and in some mountainous areas, an affection for their particular locally-sourced waters. But the 21st-century perfect storm of an affluent supermarket-going population and huge numbers of tourists has made the sheer scale of discarded bottles a national blight.
The most environmentally precarious tourist hubs such as Venice, the Cinque Terre and many of the country’s Mediterranean islands have attempted to ban the use of plastic bottles for the last 10 years, with various degrees of compliance. What can you do to help? When out and about, use a reusable water bottle and keep a lookout for traditional street fontanella, or modern filling stations which offer either spring or sparkling for a few euro cents a litre. At restaurants, don’t be afraid to say no to the bottle, especially if they are individually sized, and insist on acqua di rubinetto, tap water instead. This was once considered rude, but some places now even offer their own filtered or fizzed water in carafes, usually for just a nominal charge.
A shoulder season beach holiday to beat the crowds might be a smart idea, but once the crowds have gone home, the Italian coast can sometimes come as a shock. Sandy stretches may only be tended in summer time, when they are given over to the beach clubs that rent loungers and umbrellas, and for the rest of the year are strewn with not just driftwood but mounds of plastic and other rubbish.
Good news though: some of Italy’s most beloved seaside destinations, including Capri, Sardinia and Puglia, have at least banned single use plastics, such as cutlery and straws, and there is an increasing awareness of beach cleanliness. Blue Flag, an international organization that gives a tick to beaches who pass a number of environmental standards, including water quality and beach cleanliness as well as accessibility, includes beaches along all Italy’s coastlines in their recommendations. Which region tops the list? Liguria, Italy’s pretty slice of Riviera.
With microplastics now present in Italy’s glaciers, one resort, Pejo 300, in the Stelvio National Park in Trentino, has gone zero-waste, banning all plastics, including ski pass covers, along with straws, bottles, cutlery and even packets of sauce and mayo.
Hybrid snowcats are in the works, and the resort is fuelled by hydroelectric plants and sustainable forest offcuts. When choosing Italian winter resorts, research their sustainability efforts, and also look into Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing to minimize your own impact.
Italy has long a reputation for being a nation of smokers, but it’s most recent smoking rates are far less than many of its European neighbors and only a few percent more than the US. It can still be common to encounter smoking in the terraces of bars and restaurants as well as beaches, plus compliance with anti-smoking laws can be lax in southern regions such as Campania and Calabria.
Italy was one of Europe’s anti-smoking pioneers, with bans in bars and restaurants in place since the mid 2000s. These are being extended in the north, with smoking banned entirely in Milan and Florence’s outdoors, in parks and gardens in Bolzano and Verona, and plans to ban it in Venice’s center.
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