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. 

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 tonnes of waste a year to feed its recycling plants. But decentralised 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].” 

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.)

Piles of trash wait to be sorted at Reggio Maceri.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

The owner and manager of Reggio Maceri poses in front of a wall of sorted plastic waste bound for recycling. The company previously worked with the Red Cross to remove hazardous waste, and later began to promote separate waste collection systems to improve recycling.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A man picks through bottles destined for recycling. Italy boasts one of Europe’s most robust recycling industries, even importing millions of tonnes of waste a year to recycle.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTONIO PELLICANO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A Reggio Maceri worker poses in front of towering bags of fibre waste. This man, like most of Reggio Maceri's nine staff members, is not native to Italy.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A public bus passes by a lot strewn with carcinogenic waste, including cement contaminated with asbestos, in Reggio Calabria, Italy.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

Sunglasses and cigarette in place, a man holds discarded electronic appliances as he poses near mounds of sorted recyclable textiles. Reggio Maceri sorts and stores recyclable waste before it's shipped to recycling plants.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A man stands among towering piles of waste at a recycling plant in Reggio Calabria, Italy. Separate waste collection began in 1999 here, where recycling is not especially present in the community mindset.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTONIO PELLICANO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

This African teen migrated to Italy in the summer of 2016. He spends his time looking through trash for food, and for things he can recycle or sell.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A man scales heaps of packaged waste. Wood is often recycled into composite board used for furniture.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A hard-hatted worker walks by piles of sorted waste. Much of southern Italy sends all waste directly to a landfill; Reggio Calabria uses a three-part collection system more common in the north to separate organic, recyclable, and non-recyclable waste.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A person's shadow is framed by packaged bales of plastic waste.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

A worker is silhouetted in bright sunlight as he moves from the sorting warehouse to the open storage lot.
PHOTO BY ANTONIO PELLICANÒ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

Header Image: 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

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