Political Flap Affects Albanian Trash

The Albanian capital Tirana has a lovely Mediterranean climate and a rich history that can be traced back 2,000 years. But the city is struggling with a problem that detracts from its charm — garbage. When communism collapsed in the early 1990s, so did the system of trash removal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Albania, the city of Tirana has a lovely Mediterranean climate and a rich history that can be traced back 2,000 years. But one thing detracts big time from its charm - garbage tossed onto the streets. It's something you could blame on the fall of communism, as NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA: When communism collapsed here in the early 1900s so did the city's system of garbage removal. Shpresa Rira(ph), a teacher at the foreign language institute in Tirana, remembers that under communism families were ordered to spend part of their weekend picking up trash.

Ms. SHPRESA RIRA (Foreign Language Instructor, Tirana): It was called the communist Saturday because people were meant to come to come together and give their services to the community.

O'HARA: Rira says that people were not paid but they turned out anyway, because if they didn't, the consequences could be dire. The communist tactic, she says, destroyed community spirit in Albania.

Ms. RIRA: We thought that we were closely connected, but as soon as communism was over, you know, we understood that that community spirit didn't exist at all. It was just a fake.

O'HARA: Shpresa Rira remembers that residents of the city simply dumped their refuse into any place that was convenient.

Ms. RIRA: They just - they litter outside their balconies or windows without thinking of the consequences.

O'HARA: Edi Rama, Tirana's mayor for the past seven years, has started a system for trash removal. He's put garbage dumpsters in most of the city's neighborhoods. But people have to bring their trash to the dumpsters and the system has been slow to catch on. So city officials tried to set an example. They cleaned up Tirana's trash-filled central park and the river that runs through downtown.

Mayor EDI RAMA (Tirana, Albania): We plant grass and reconstructed (unintelligible) so the citizens got exactly the message that the time of occupation of the public space was over.

O'HARA: In the past year the garbage situation has improved markedly. The central park is fairly free of litter and neighborhoods around the city slowly are looking better. Mayor Rama says that people are beginning to understand that under democracy, citizens have some responsibilities.

Mayor RAMA: Freedom, in itself, it's not enough. People have started to realize that the state is not the answer of every question, and that cooperation among them is needed if you want to have a better life.

O'HARA: You still see people look their neighbor in the eye as they throw their trash off of balconies, but you see a lot more people carrying bags of garbage to the dumpsters.

Albania has not reached the point of establishing a recycling system, but the country is poor enough that recycling takes place anyway. As residents toss their leftovers into the dumpsters, the Roma, or gypsies, are the first to move in. The gypsies remove the bottles, plastics and shreds or clothing for resale. When the gypsies are done, the cats, dogs and rats gather to tear through plastic bags in search of food. Anything they don't eat is left for garbage pickup.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Tirana, Albania.

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