\Public and Academic Analysis/

The startup taking on Rome’s mafia-ridden rubbish sector

Gianluca Vorrano, founder of the tech startup Borsino di Rifiuti, thinks he has the answer to Rome's long-standing rubbish problem.

By Ben Munster in Rome

If you walk right down by the Tiber in Rome’s postwar district of Portuense, a few miles south of the city’s centre, and look closely, you’ll see a strange debris caught in the river’s churn: plastic bottles, brown paper bags, polystyrene cartons, a flotilla of refuse deposited from the banks. Perhaps it has drifted in from neighbouring Ostiense, across the river, where the grand, stark-white Stazione di Roma Ostiense, still bearing fascist insignia, presides over a square into which half the city’s dustbins seem to have spilled. Or maybe it has tumbled downhill from the residential district of Gianicolense, where dumpsters overflow and dripping, engorged bin bags clutter the streets. 

There is so much junk stinking up Italy’s capital that wild boars now come in from the countryside to pick at it.

The city’s 1.7m metric tons of annual waste used to be taken out to a vast, seagull-infested landfill known as Malagrotta, run by a local tycoon known as the “King of Trash,” but European Union regulations forced it to close in 2013. The morass of rotting pork rinds, stinking fish heads, and grease-stained cardboard packaging left in the city’s streets each day must now be exported to far-flung provinces with proper systems in place.

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Much of it ends up going uncollected for days, even weeks, and is left to fester by a disposal service that, to make matters worse, has alleged ties to organised crime. Successive mayors have pledged reforms, but have gotten little done. Rome remains filthy — eternally so.

But there is one entrepreneur, Gian Luca Vorraro, founder of the tech startup Borsino Rifiuti, who thinks he has the answer to this long-standing problem. The 48-year-old is building an online marketplace which takes rubbish away from households and also delivers it to recycling centres, incinerators or landfill. He describes it as a kind of Amazon or Uber — but for rubbish.

While it has not solved the issue quite yet thanks to onerous local state rules (which only just got relaxed), it’s a sign that even in obscure areas like Italian garbage there are European tech entrepreneurs looking for new solutions to solve old dilemmas.

Little Garbage Exchange

The goal with Borsino Rifiuti, which means “Little Garbage Exchange,” is to develop a private “circular economy” that can account for the hole in Rome’s waste collection process. The company’s website matches buyers and sellers of waste products, offers physical “Borsino Points” in which to trade in person, and permits on-demand collection.

Vorraro says all of this is cheaper and more effective than the public alternative, meaning Romans who feel as though they waste money on rubbish collection taxes, which are partly optional, can save by going through Borsini Rifiuti. The aim, says Vorraro, is to replace the failed public system entirely.

Launched via crowdfund in 2017, Borsino Rifiuti is already doing pretty well. Vorraro says the company has processed 2,500 tons of rubbish, and has taken on customers as far-ranging as a major train operator and a cooked ham purveyor. It also has around 12 full-time employees and over 100 freelance delivery men on its payroll, and has access to 600 waste treatment plants, which offer a variety of services: one, for example, converts discarded vegetable oil into electricity.

Still, there’s a limit as to what the company’s fleet of small-timers is able to collect. “Sometimes I get strange requests,” says Carlo Biondi, who runs freelance pick-ups and deliveries from his Borsino Rifiuti-emblazoned garbage truck. “The Ministry of Justice asked us to dispose of a room’s worth of computers, which of course we couldn’t do.” 

Falling in love

Vorraro says he fell in love with the rubbish business at 24, when he invented a waste disposal vehicle, and his dream is to see Borsino Rifiuto expand worldwide. “Waste is something everybody has in common,” he says wistfully, “yet nobody knows its true value.”

“There was no way to manage waste disposal digitally.”

Before founding Borsino Rifiuti, he was unhappy with the way Rome’s rubbish business was run, thinking it old-fashioned and overly centralised. “There was no way to manage waste disposal digitally,” he says. “It was all done in a very archaic way, and it was the only sector in the world that hadn’t been disintermediated.” He says Borsino Rifiuti is a digital, as well as practical, solution. 

But until recently the company had struggled to gain a foothold. Waste disposal in Rome was the “prerogative of the local council,” Vorraro says, “which made the market impenetrable.” Private companies like Borsino Rifiuti could only legally collect waste from large manufacturing companies, and Vorraro could not serve small businesses. For the first few years the company brought in only €500,000 in revenue in total, taken from commissions on deliveries and pick-ups and split between a dozen employees. 

Only in October did Rome finally issue a decree permitting small businesses to outsource their waste disposal to companies like Borsino Rifiuti, which was able to step up its game significantly. Vorraro says that some 76% of respondents in a recent survey said they would leave AMA, the city’s waste disposal service, for Borsino Rifiuti, in light of the recent decree.

He is optimistic about the company’s future, and expects to triple its revenue next year. “It will be good,” he adds, “when you don’t have to wade through garbage to get an ice cream.” 

Little by little, Vorraro’s dream of the waste disposal business being completely privatised may be coming to fruition. But, as the health services in Italy’s north discovered during the pandemic, privatised utilities can fail catastrophically in times of crisis. At the beginning of lockdown, for instance, a similarly privatised waste collection business run by Silvia Cavaniglia, a Roman entrepreneur, was forced to temporarily shut down due to lack of demand. The business vanished into thin air, and locals who had grown dependent on it were left wondering where to deposit their waste. 

Competing with crime

Franco Cotana, a board member at the University of Perugia who advises the government on sustainable development, argues that a private enterprise involving itself in Rome’s waste disposal business would face the same problems faced by the public sector: Criminal organisations would find a way to commandeer the supply chain, and complex legislation would continue to slow things down. (Vorraro protests: “We’re too small for the Mafia!”).

Cotana says it would be better to instead lobby the government to run its waste disposal service more effectively, and advocates for the installation of a plant specialising in Refuse-Derived-Fuel, which involves the conversion of waste into energy, in the nearby town of Civitavecchia. 

But Vorraro believes such efforts would prove futile, noting how Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, has promised to clean up the city since her election in 2016, with little success. The technological solution offered by Borsino Rifiuti, it seems, is to let the market have a go instead.

“With digitalizzazione,” he says, “you can’t go wrong.”

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