The Italian Job

Jessica Lockey discovers how a small town in Tuscany has inspired 123 other Italian municipalities to take up zero waste strategies

In the Italian town of Capannori, a municipality in the Lucca province of Tuscany, a zero waste movement is gaining pace. The first Italian municipality to adopt a zero waste strategy, and credited with galvanising 123 others to follow its lead, Capannori currently recycles 82 per cent of its residual waste at source, with only 0.4 kilogrammes of residual waste per person. 

The impressive achievement started with several commitments made in 2007 to achieve zero waste by 2020: introducing a pay-as-you-throw system; phasing out incineration and landfill; and prioritising waste prevention, with special emphasis on extended producer responsibility. 

But perhaps most significantly, in 2010 the town also set up a Zero Waste Research Centre (ZWRC) on a three-year budget of €20,000 (£17,300) to address the issue of ‘unseen’ waste. Critical of the traditional systems of waste management that are designed to hide waste, Rossano Ercolini, the centre’s Director, tells Resource that he set out to ‘make waste visible’. 

“Residual waste has to be visible and studied because it represents a ‘design mistake’ by not being recyclable and/or not compostable”, he says, going on to explain that ZWRC grew out of Ambiente e Futuro (Environment and Future), an organisation Ercolini originally formed to fight local incinerator plans.

To tackle waste, the centre works with waste experts – designers, university professors, artists, etc – on its operative team and scientific committee, which is presided over by zero waste advocate Paul Connett. They provide advice about ways to avoid waste, and propose solutions to waste problems, like excess packaging and waste pulp from paper mills. The centre also promotes case studies and awareness campaigns, such as ‘International plastic bag free day’ (3 July), and an initiative providing families with free reusable nappies for their child’s first year. 

zero waste research centre

The team isn’t afraid to get really stuck in: to understand what products and materials are repeatedly thrown away, ZWRC has looked inside households’ grey residual bags, discovering they’re made up of 28 per cent plastics, 22 per cent biowaste, 16 per cent clothing and 13 per cent nappies. The group believes that, with the right policies and better product design, non-recyclable or reusable household and commercial waste could be reduced to less than five per cent of total waste. 

And the group’s actions are getting results. Having discovered that Lavazza coffee capsules were repeatedly cropping up in the residual waste piles (10 billion capsules are sold in the world every year, with a tenth – around 12,000 tonnes – disposed of in Italian landfills and incinerators), the group sent proposals to Lavazza and Nespresso, asking them to rethink their products’ end-of-life options. Specifically, they suggested take-back systems to recover capsules for composting, reuse or recycling. 

Lavazza invited the zero waste group to collaborate in developing a solution, and has announced that it is starting a pilot project to develop a new design for reusable coffee capsules. What’s more, Ercolini received a call from the AIIPA (the association representing all Italian coffee companies, including Lavazza) in July, announcing plans for a pilot plan to recover plastic and coffee grounds from coffee capsules, with one project based in Capannori. The research centre is also working with Florence University’s Agriculture Faculty on a study using coffee grounds to produce mushrooms. 

But it’s not just the centre’s employees who have been thinking of designing out waste. Led by Ercolini, Capannori primary school children have created ‘The Little Museum of Bad Design’, which showcases ‘poorly designed’ packaging and products that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled or composted.

Ercolini says: “I am a primary school teacher and I think that education is ‘the breath of the zero waste project’. Children are the future… ‘The Little Museum of Bad Design’ is a fun way to involve both children and companies.”

Indeed, the involvement needs to spread up the chain of consumption as well; when asked how people can reduce their waste, Ercolini tells Resource: “Citizens can solve 70 per cent (or more) of the problem, but the rest has to be put in the hands of companies who need to accept greater responsibility for what they put on the market.” 

As winner of the environmental Goldman Prize for Europe this year, Ercolini was celebrated for his work in ‘protecting and enhancing our environment’ at a grassroots level, and received a US$150,000 (£97,600) cash prize – thought to be the largest award for grassroots environmental activism, which Ercolini says will be very useful: “Thanks to the funds coming from my prize, we can promote our activities to improve reuse centres, create waste reduction campaigns, and so on. Two Italian publishers have also asked me to write books about our experience, and so I’ll put those funds to support new projects, such as giving jobs to young designers who can work on designing out waste. We need more money, but we need also more involvement.” 

As well as supporting local projects, the prize has shed media light on the project, and Ercolini has been invited to promote a zero waste goal in France. “Now we are very powerful and our zero waste project is opening many doors”, Ercolini notes. Watch this space…