Migrants in Sicily teach locals how to recycle

One of Sicily's largest cities has been caught between an unexpected migration wave and an increasing trash crisis over the past few years. A local initiative has found a way to tackle both at the same time.

Mariagiovanna Italia busily rearranges trinkets in her stall at a bustling Sicilian market, as some people approach. Spotting a potential sale, she launches into a lively explanation of the products on offer. Migrants made them out of trash, she says.

Nature and Environment | 20.12.2018

Italia is project coordinator at Fieri, a social enterprise established in 2015 in Catania. It trains and employs migrants to breathe new life into waste from Sicily's second-largest city.

Purses made of old door handles and African textiles, recycled copper ornaments and discarded furniture turned into wooden souvenirs are just some of the creations to come out of Fieri's trash workshops.

And if there's anywhere that needs to find innovative ways to deal with garbage disposal, it's Catania.

Nature and Environment | 09.10.2018

Over the past five years, overflowing dumpsters and waste left to rot on sidewalks under the searing summer sun have been a common sight for the city's residents. Recycle rates are among the worst in the entire country, despite the fact that, in early 2018, Sicily's president Sebastiano Musumeci mandated a recycling goal of 30 percent of waste collected per month across the island.

Read more: Plastic pollution: Do beach clean-ups really make a difference?

In October, recycling stood at 5.6 percent, down from 11 percent at the start of 2017, said Viola Sorbello, president of the Catania branch of major Italian environmental NGO Legambiente. 

"If we continue this way, the future will not be bright, as waste goes to already saturated landfills at very high economic and environmental costs," said Sorbello.

Mariagiovanna Italia (pictured) hopes that Fieri helps migrants find their place in Italian society

Fieri hopes it can spread environmental awareness in Catania and help to deal with the mounting trash chaos. But it wants to do something more, too.

"We thought of proposing a relief opportunity for the two main crises affecting Sicily: trash and migration," Italia told DW.

Read more: Can plastic recycling solve the fast-fashion problem?

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Integrating migrants through recycling

For decades, Sicily has become one of the major ports of entry for migrants to Europe, particularly those making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa.

Migrant arrivals to Italy by sea dropped from 170,000 in 2014 to 16,000 in the first half of 2018, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).  For the migrants who have been able to stay,  the future is full of uncertainty.

By 2016, just over half of migrants in southern Italy, including Sicily, had secured a job, according to a report by the Italian National Institute of Social Security. Some 38 percent of those jobs were in the agricultural and fisheries sectors, while 30 percent were in domestic roles — sectors in which work is often precarious and underpaid.

The report, which looked at employment among migrants from outside of Europe and from Eastern Europe, concluded the group has also been more severely impacted than Italians by the effects of the economic crisis since 2011. 

That's something Fieri has tried to address since its inception. It's trained around 150 migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, in workshops for soap-making, fashion, jewelry and carpentry. Fieri also has a composter and a garbage collection point, where locals can donate second-hand material and trash to upcycle.

"We didn't want to create just a place that raises awareness about preserving the environment through migrants," said Italia, "but also offer them a solid basis for what comes after the training and social integration process."

Trash collection in Catania and Sicily in general often doesn't work as it should

Saikou Ceesay is one of four migrants Fieri employs to teach anyone who walks through its doors how to give refuse a new purpose. The 24-year-old reached Sicily by boat in June 2014 after a six-month journey from his native Gambia, where he had worked as a carpenter, recycling pieces of wood he found in the trash.

He then spent a year in Mineo, Europe's largest migrant reception center, before moving to Austria for a time. Unable to find a job there, he moved back to Sicily, and took up a position with Fieri.

"It's hard to find a job as an African migrant here," Ceesay told DW, adding that Fieri has been a great opportunity for all those involved. "We show Italians that we can actively contribute with the skills we bring and teach sustainable habits many Europeans have forgotten."

The Gambian now wants to open a carpentry shop in Catania that would use only discarded wood.

Fighting stereotypes

Fieri also wants to challenge rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy by encouraging "intercultural encounters," said Italia.

Saikou Ceesay from Gambia is passing on his carpentry and recycling to those attending Fieri workshops

That's an important aspect of the project for the Fieri co-founder — especially given the rise of the right-wing party Lega in Italy. Lega member Matteo Salvini, who's serving as both deputy prime minister and interior minister, campaigned on a hardline immigration message.

"Migrants have so far been a scapegoat in policy-making issues in Italy," said local Alessandra Matarazzo, a volunteer at Fieri. "They've even been pointed out as a cause for increasing pollution and dirt, while they fill roles Italians no longer accept as dignified jobs, such as garbage disposal."

The "intercultural encounters" have also encouraged a number of Italians to help migrants with bureaucratic and translation issues. Anna Piscopo, who lives near the social enterprise, is one of them. She helps those making crafts at Fieri find new markets for their products. These experiences have convinced her that enterprises like this can contribute to social cohesion.

"I think this idea of meeting them in their work space, while they actively do something, will help fight common stereotypes we have in Italy about migrants coming here just to sit and do nothing," said Piscopo. "And that's pretty powerful."

Trash turned into stunning art

Artistic activism

A giant parrot fish made of countless colorful pieces is not something you see every day. And it's just one of a large number of beautiful sculptures of sea creatures created by Washed Ashore. But the Oregon-based project is about more than creative expression.

Trash turned into stunning art

More than the sum of its parts

A closer look reveals that the larger-than-life sculptures are made from a wild mix of plastic objects: Toys, tooth brushes, bottles, tires, sandals, baskets. What they all have in common is their origin: They were washed ashore on the coast of Oregon in the United States.

Trash turned into stunning art

Cleaning up

Before the plastic trash can be transformed into art, the materials need to be collected, cleaned and sorted by color. Over the past five years, volunteers at Washed Ashore have processed about 17 tons of garbage this way.

Trash turned into stunning art

Lead artist in a group effort

Washed Ashore’s founder and lead artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi (pictured here) creates the concepts for the sculptures and also shapes the more difficult parts like the animals' faces.

Trash turned into stunning art

Art education

Volunteers of all ages also participate in the creative process by piecing together parts of the sculptures. This kind of help leads many to start questioning their own wasteful lifestyles and consider ways of generating less garbage.

Trash turned into stunning art

Raising awareness

The completed sculptures are taken on tour throughout the United States to raise awareness about plastic pollution in our oceans and the destruction of marine ecosystems. There are currently three shows on the road - each one comprises some 15 pieces.

Trash turned into stunning art

Making a big impression

“The idea is that you have to grab people’s attention and no-one can resist a huge plastic animal!” says Haseltine Pozzi. Most sculptures measure between 3.5 and 4.5 meters in length and almost three meters in height. The current record-holder is a bird sculpture with a seven-meter wingspan.

Trash turned into stunning art

Copycats wanted

Haseltine Pozzi hopes that people in other countries will create their own version of Washed Ashore. "I have always thought of this as an epidemic art exhibit. It inspires more people to want to do something very similar and that way we get more garbage off the beaches and more awareness internationally. That’s our ultimate goal."