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2013 Prize: Q&A with Rossano Ercolini

July 12, 2013

An elementary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement.

How did you begin to create awareness in your community about the dangers of incinerators and the need to adopt recycling programs?

When it was announced that there would be an incinerator constructed in our community, many people, particularly mothers, were concerned about what the effects would be on the children.

I was inspired by the success of cities throughout the world, especially San Francisco, in creating recycling programs, and I wanted to bring that to Capannori. Initially there was a lot of resistance – politicians and pro-incineration businesses, like paper mills, widely supported incineration. But the community wanted to explore safe alternatives to incineration and so our movement grew.

We began by gathering groups of people together and showing them a bag of mixed waste and demonstrating how it could all be sorted out. This helped people see that it was possible to manage waste without incinerators because most of the waste could be reused or recycled. It was an easy strategy, but effective – it got the community involved and invested. When we started, the recycling rate in Capannori was only 11 percent, now it is over 80 percent.

What are current obstacles to achieving Zero Waste in Italy?

One challenge is explaining to people that there may never truly be “zero waste” but that Zero Waste is a direction for us to move toward. It’s a complicated issue because Italy has spent a lot of time and money promoting incineration, but we try to use best practices and examples from San Francisco and many European cities to show that alternatives are possible. Zero Waste will not happen tomorrow, but it’s a goal we must work toward.

We have seen that 70 percent of the waste problem can be solved by the community through recycling and waste separation. The other 30 percent of the solutions must come from businesses, and that is a challenge in Italy.

One of the current initiatives we are working on is coordinating with large companies to find more sustainable packaging methods.  We did a study and found that single-use coffee capsules were a large part of the waste being disposed in Italy. Now we are working with Lavazza, one of the largest Italian coffee manufacturers, to make their packaging sustainable and recyclable to support our Zero Waste goals.

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What are you currently working on and what’s next in your effort to achieve Zero Waste across Italy, and beyond?

A big focus of my work is in Naples and Milan where there is still a reliance on large scale incinerators. We are also focusing on landfills, particularly in Rome which has huge landfills, including Malagrotta, the largest one in Europe. It’s harder to get big cities on board right away, but by targeting smaller nearby cities first we create demand for change which makes it a political issue that the large cities cannot continue to ignore. This is the strategy we used in Naples and are continuing to use throughout Italy.

We are also promoting Zero Waste as an economic issue by showing that recycling creates jobs. In Capannori, many young people have joined our campaign by starting their own door-to-door waste collection and recycling systems. There is a facility nearby where they recover copper, aluminum and other metals from discarded washing machines and reuse them. Zero Waste will not only improve the economy, it will lead to a cleaner economy. This economic message is a powerful motivator for many given the current economic crisis in Europe.

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