Visiting Italy: Five Eco-Friendly Initiatives We Can Learn From

Visiting Italy has been a lifelong dream for my Italian husband. He still has family there, in the northernmost reaches.

trays of dried pasta in italy

Visiting Italy

We just returned from visiting Italy, where we spent three weeks seeing some of the most amazing architectural sites in the world, eating SUCH good food, spending time on a farm in Umbria, and comparing life in Italian villages and big cities to what we’ve experienced here in the states.

It was a trip of a lifetime, our Italy vacation, and such an education to be able to see how another country operates, if only just a cursory view.

Living in Italy is a Far Cry From America's Excessive Ways

From an environmental standpoint, living in Italy differs substantially from American living.

Transportation in Italy

Except for a few days in the country when we did have a rental car, we utilized public transit to move from location to location (we hit six different communities in all) while visiting Italy. The train and subway system connect virtually every community, and it’s a well-used system. (“Why in the world aren’t we doing this at home?” asked my eldest son.) There is a bit of a learning curve to it, though.

We were a bit disconcerted that some of the trains simply didn’t announce the various stops. Visiting Italy and not knowing the area, we had to watch every station to be sure we didn’t miss our stop.

As our trip progressed, we figured out a way around this: We paid close attention to the route, noting the stops just prior to ours. Commonsense, I guess, but it took us train travel rookies a few trips to figure out!

Generally speaking, cars in Italy are small. We saw exactly one pickup truck while we were there, and a few vans, but little, itty bitty things like smart cars and scooters are the norm.

Living in Italy is a Far Cry From America's Excessive Ways

In some of the smaller communities we visited, bicycles were in heavy use. In Parma, bicycles appeared to outnumber vehicles and they all share the road in some crazy semblance of a system that was not visible to my unskilled eye. (Parma was one of my favorites stops during our visit to Italy.) Between the prevalence of public transportation and the fuel efficient cars, gas stations were few and far between. The ones we saw were tiny roadside stations with just two pumps.

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We are water people. We always carry refillable bottles with us, and visiting Italy was no exception. Imagine our utter joy at discovering that water is free-flowing for people traveling and living in Italy!

The fontanelle (or little fountains) run constantly making it easy to refill, and according to this there are 2,500 in Rome alone. Now, all of you in drought-stricken regions are aghast at the idea of free-flowing water but while I’m not sure exactly how (language barrier), I’m assured that the water is recycled.

Related: Food in Italy: Lessons in Eating Locally

free-flowing water in Italy

With all this free-flowing water outside, we were a bit perplexed that it’s not so free-flowing inside. At least at restaurants. If you want water at a restaurant, you must purchase a bottle. You may choose “still” or “gassed.” Or acqua naturale or acqua frizzante. The good news is, most of the restaurants offer water bottled in glass and the glass bottles are saved and refilled, much like we used to recycle soda or milk bottles back in the day.

Laundry in Italy

We stayed in rented flats, giving us a chance to see how a typical Italian household might be set up. Visiting Italy certainly isn’t living in Italy, but we did appreciate having this experience, as opposed to staying in a hotel. All of the homes had a small (small!) washing machine, but with the exception of one, there was no dryer. Laundry is hung on indoor racks or on the balcony to dry.

red tank tops handing on a clothesline against a pink building (Italy)

Trash and recycling

Separating waste and recycling isn’t just encouraged in Italy. According to one of our hosts, it’s the law. Every one of our flats came with a system for separating waste: Paper/cardboard; glass/cans; plastic; and organic waste.

recycling containers in Italy

Public venues had very clearly marked sorting bins, and there were even bigger dumpsters right on the streets, presumably for residents to empty their household containers into. Some were much nicer looking than others.

Italian bathrooms

Toilets in Italy are not as standardized as they are in America. Public toilets were often a bowl without a seat, though we also saw a rustic hole-in-the-ground. The more interesting thing, though, is that almost every toilet we saw featured a water saving flush system. Even in private homes, toilets featured options to allow the user to choose just how much water is necessary to clear the bowl.

The dual flush option (pictured below) was the most common, but we also stayed in one flat that had a simple water faucet. Done? Turn the faucet on and run it until the bowl is clear.

At first it felt like we were running water unnecessarily, but in short order we realized that running it manually was using way less water than our tank toilet at home. We may not ever convince the general population to switch over to composting toilets, but dual flush toilets seem so commonsense! Why not install those in every new home that’s built? No? I guess I’ll just have to visit Italy for an environmentally friendly flush! 😉

Why don't we have the dual flush option in every bathroom??

Bidets are standard in just about every bathroom. It occurs to me that a household that has switched over to “family cloth” would really appreciate this addition. Even for families who aren’t ready to go there (ahem, like mine) a bidet can reduce toilet paper waste. Of course, you’d need to factor in the water situation in your region.

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About the author: Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle. She’s a certified Master Food Preserver and longtime gardener who loves to turn the harvest into pantry staples.

10 comments… add one
  • Catherine Nov 11, 2015 @ 15:47

    We’ve noticed many of the same things you mention. Our daughter and her husband lived in Italy (about 45 km from Rome) for 10 years and once grandchildren started arriving, we began to visit regularly, twice a year for a month at a time. No dryers, true for about 98% of households, although when our daughter had 3 littles with two under age 3… and cloth diapers… we bought them a dryer for use in the cold damp of winter. Sometimes the rainy days go on for so long that you see people hanging laundry outside with plastic sheets covering it. And clothes hung indoors aren’t dry when the next loads need to be hung up, or they just go musty without drying. The dryers take about twice as long (2 hour cycle is pretty much the minimum) but apparently use half the energy to dry a load. Air conditioning is another thing Italians do without. Despite the 100 degree F / 90% humidity that goes on for weeks in summer, nobody has a/c, neither individual homes and apartments nor museums, stores, and public buildings. The midday siesta is quite necessary: it’s not exactly cooler to lie down in a dark room behind shady awnings and shutters, but it’s less unbearably hot. Most of the apartments that you might expect to have elevators do, but very tiny ones. Three people can fit into such an elevator if they are extremely close friends or family. Group hug!

    Speaking of small vehicles – trucks are tiny. In Florence I saw a moving van that was about the size you might expect a plumber’s van to be (anything larger could not have made it down the street), and plumbers’ and gardeners’ vans tend to be Apes (two syllables, Ah-pay), incredibly tiny 3-wheeled pickups. The hard-working version of the smart car.

    They don’t have the fleets of huge trucks carrying food back and forth. Nearly all the fresh produce, not to mention cheese and sausage, is domestically produced and the signs in the produce department tell you what part of Italy the fruit & veg are from, by province. I’d love to see that in North America. Occasionally oranges and such are from Spain or elsewhere, but usually, Sicily is the furthest afield that you see, and surprisingly frequently the fruits and veg are quite local, as in hometown products. Some greengrocers are selling produce from their own farm. I miss that so much!

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 11, 2015 @ 16:04

      I loved reading this! And yes, we saw a fair lot of those little three-wheeled cars. The bummer of having been there is it’s harder and harder to shop for groceries here – I’ve seen what it COULD be! Thanks for sharing.

  • Amanda Oahu Nov 11, 2015 @ 15:05

    So many GREEN ideas ! Very nice! Italy is a “must see” for me near the top of my travel list ! 🙂

  • Karen Oct 13, 2015 @ 15:53

    Love this post! How exciting to see all the green practices in Italy. Conservation efforts in foreign countries intrigue me. We can do better in the U.S. in so many ways! Happy Anniversary!!

  • Sonia (foodiesleuth) Oct 13, 2015 @ 6:40

    How exciting for your whole family to go on this trip!
    My trips to Italy (2) were long before catchwords like recycling, conserving and ‘green’ in this context ever appeared in anyone’s vocabulary.
    It upsets me that so many other countries are way more advanced than we are when it comes to being green!
    Italy is the one country I have visited in the past to which I would love to return.

  • Teri Oct 12, 2015 @ 9:55

    This is so interesting and amazing! I cannot wait until I get to Italy. it’s a trip of a lifetime for us as well, and I’m determined to get there in the next 5 years, and stay for as long as I’m able! Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  • Candi Oct 12, 2015 @ 4:44


    How I would love to go there- someday!

    I especially found the recycling and bathrooms interesting- great info.

    • Kris Bordessa Oct 12, 2015 @ 8:04

      Start tucking pennies away! It took us forever to save for this trip, but I’m so glad we finally got there!

  • Susan Oct 9, 2015 @ 16:15

    Thank you for your commentary about Italy! We are planning to visit in 2016 and your informs yon provided will be useful.

    • Kris Bordessa Oct 9, 2015 @ 17:16

      Oh, how exciting! This was our first trip to Europe ever and it was so fabulous. I’m glad you found this useful!

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