Rome hosts the biggest rubbish dump in Europe, claimed to be now nearly full to overflowing, the fulcrum of a rubbish crisis facing all of Italy today. Yet plans are afoot to exploit the unlovely tip further, with public authorities apparently powerless to halt them.

The dump, in use since 1984, is simply known as Malagrotta after a neighbouring road junction close to the coastal Aurelia highway and some 14 km due west of Stazione Termini. A bevy of young prostitutes from eastern Europe in hotpants were getting off the 808 bus at the junction. The crossroads was permanently under assault by scores of clattering lorries: not only bulk-carriers from busy nearby sandpits but also tankers from a smoking oil refinery just across the road from the dump and, of course, those ungainly contraptions that swallow up rubbish from the streets of Rome and then spew it out into the maws of choking Malagrotta.

The rubbish dump was concealed behind sliding steel gates; after slipping through them, your writer found a triumphal arch over the access road bearing the words: La Citt delle Industrie Ambientali Malagrotta, Roma (the city of environmental industries Malagrotta, Rome). Beyond it were gaily painted light blue guillotine-like structures signposted as Impianti pre-selezione e riduzione del volume (pre-selection and volume reduction plants). Further on were stacked rows of plastic-covered bales of rubbish, known as eco-packs; next came low sheds, and then the dump itself.

It was an immense landscape of bare earth, hillocks, valleys and what looked like railway embankments, all betraying the sharp contours of what was once the undulating and empty countryside of Rome. It stretched over 200 hectares, furrowed by razor-edge ridge-lines. It seemed innocuous and odourless at first, until an odd sight came into view: great flocks of seagulls either tucking into the earth or swooping just over its surface. Then here and there, sprouting from the hillsides, were tell-tale tufts of the raw rubbish itself.

But in one area a real hill was being torn down. Yellow cranes were digging into it, carting away soil dislodged by a platoon of bulldozers, all working out of sight of the provincial road. What was going on?

Theyre building a gasifier, explained Raniero Maggini, president of the Lazio branch of WWF. We reported it to the municipal police and they confirmed what was happening, he said. A gasifier is a plant that converts rubbish into fuel, for kitchen gas cylinders for instance. If the authorities let it go ahead, Maggini warned, theyll be killing off all prospects of differentiated rubbish collection in Lazio.

For Maggini this is a vital point because the effective pre-sorting of waste to be recycled would cut down the amount of nastiness to be dumped and buried by a good 80 per cent. As it is, Malagrotta is ingesting some 4,000 tons a day refuse picked up not only from Rome but also from the airports of Fiumicino and Ciampino as well as from the Vatican City. As for gasifiers, a great deal of work still has to be done on their effect on public health and the environment, added Maggini. At present, we know far too little about it.

Malagrotta is the cess pit of Rome, exploded Sergio Appollonio and, living on top of it and being the chairman of the Malagrotta residents committee, he should know. But the committees efforts to do something about it have run into a legal dead end. He explained: Piero Marrazzo [the centre-left president of the Lazio region elected in 2005] suspended two decrees passed in March last year by the old centre-right administration that authorised both a gasifier and the expansion of Malagrotta. However, Marrazzo failed to back up his order with the necessary juridical instruments, and the time-limit for blocking the decrees has now run out. So theyre clearing the land for the foundation of the gasifier and trying to hide it from us. Think of it and Lazios betting its political future on the waste issue!

Not that were against a gasifier as such, Appollonio went on. Just lets see whether it will be needed after weve got proper differentiation aimed at zero-waste. If so, well look into it again.

But what paralyses the wishes of his committee, the region and the city council is that Malagrotta does not belong to any of them. Instead it is owned by a private company, COLARI (Consorzio Lazio Rifiuti), run by the 82-year-old so-called Italian King of Rubbish, alias Manlio Cerroni. His staff insistently side-stepped all telephone enquiries about Malagrotta. However, in 2004 he told a parliamentary commission that Malagrotta would be full by 2007 and, since no rubbish combustion plant existed in Lazio, he had tried unsuccessfully to get waste diverted to Germany, Poland and Albania. He pointed out that such plants were at their most efficient in Finland. As for Malagrotta, he promised that he would finally transform Malagrotta into an Italian Central Park akin to the one in Manhattan at his own expense.

But today he would have to attenuate his complaints as recently the city has begun to lighten the workload of Malagrotta. In January, the Agenzia Municipale Ambientale (AMA), which is responsible for the citys rubbish collection, at last inaugurated a dry/wet waste treatment plant capable of processing 750 tons a day at Rocca Cencia between Via Prenestina and Via Casilina. The dry waste is transformed into fuel and the so-called wet waste undergoes a magic transformation and mysteriously emerges as B-class soil.