Sanitation officials in Naples were desperately opening temporary rubbish dumps at the weekend as short-term relief from a refuse-collection crisis that has closed schools and sent angry residents on to the streets at night to set fire to hundreds of mounds of uncollected waste.
Neapolitans took the law into their own hands after the city ran out of space to dump rubbish, leaving 3,000 tonnes piled up by roadsides in the city, often spilling over to block traffic, and a further 10,000 tonnes in the city's sprawling hinterland -- risking what Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has called an "ecological and health disaster."
Local residents, many recalling the city's last cholera outbreak in the 1970s, decided they would rather suffer the black clouds released by burning trash than see rats nibbling at piles rotting in the spring heat.
"Leaving the garbage in the sun meant infections, burning releases dioxins," said Piero Comba at the Higher Institute for Health in Rome. "Either way out was equally dangerous."
In one neighborhood, the flames destroyed telephone exchanges, leaving it cut off. Rubbish also accumulated along the beautiful Sorrento coastline, just as the tourist season got under way.
"We have 112km of country walks, a marine park and award-winning restaurants. Why do we have to transmit this filthy image to the media?" said Lello Staiano, the councillor in charge of tourism for the district of Massa Lubrense.
As emergency dumps began to open over the weekend and refuse trucks slowly replaced fire engines on the streets, locals began to question their scant recycling efforts, which leave Naples bottom of the class for dividing waste in Italy.
Naples's problems could have been averted if small-town mayors around the city had given permission for more dumps and incinerators in their areas. Furious protests have stalled plans, including at Parapoti where locals blocked train lines in 2004 in efforts to stop the work.
Not all protests may be legitimate. Investigators suspect some local politicians are in the pocket of Camorra organized crime clans which own fleets of garbage trucks and make a fortune from fly-tipping.
Apart from simple fly-tipping of municipal waste, the Camorra's real business in the area is the illegal dumping of toxic industrial waste, usually picked up from factories in northern Italy and amounting to a million tonnes in the last five years.
"The controls here are zero and they even stuffed waste into the illegal quarries dug into the nearby mountains, which is why the residents of San Felice a Cancello found themselves covered in garbage when a landslide hit the town," said Eleonora Gitto, an environmental consultant to the regional authority.
One plan that has got off the ground is a new incinerator due to open this year in the green fields of Acerra, near Naples. Rubbish was being hauled off Naples pavements and unloaded there on Saturday, despite protests by environmentalists predicting a surge in cancer rates due to dioxins released by the plant.