A worker at Reggio Maceri shields his face with a scrap of trash. Most of Reggio Maceri's employees are not native Italians, but rather immigrants from Albania, Romania, India, and the Middle East.
A worker at Reggio Maceri shields his face with a scrap of trash. Most of Reggio Maceri's employees are not native Italians, but rather immigrants from Albania, Romania, India, and the Middle East.
Photo by Antonio Pellicanò, National Geographic Your Shot

Quirky Portraits of One Town's Trash—And the People Who Take Care of It

A photographer’s work spotlights waste management workers in southern Italy.

One town’s trash is another man’s portraiture. At least, that’s the case in Reggio Calabria, Italy, where photographer and National Geographic Your Shot member Antonio Pellicanò takes moving portraits of the people who do the dirty work.

“I feel more steady when I am with a camera, with myself,” Pellicanò says. “I see the world surrounding me in a better way, more positive.”

It’s his optimism—and his concern for the environment—that spurred Pellicanò to document the workers of Reggio Maceri, the region’s first waste management plant to use separate collection streams. The company recycles everything from paper to metal to electronic appliances. (Read "Eight Million Tons of Plastic Dumped in Ocean Every Year")

Waste management in Italy is an oddly dichotomous industry: it outpaces the U.S. in percentage of total waste recycled, and even imports millions of tons of waste a year to feed its recycling plants. But decentralized regulation means management plans vary widely between municipalities, and as many as 100 of Italy's 250 official sites may fail to treat and dispose of waste in accordance with national standards.

“I'm suffering a lot living in the south of Italy where people don't care a lot about the environment,” Pellicanò says. His portraits let him “show everyone that [the workers] are doing a great job in a place where…people aren't accustomed to [recycling].” (Take this quiz to learn about global food waste.)

Pellicanò himself recycles—“I try to do the best I can,” he says—but for him, the best way to make change is to share his work.

“Photography is very important, because sometimes you can show people things don’t work the way you want them to work,” he says. “It's a kind of social photography.” (See other striking pictures of people fighting climate change.)

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