A world without waste
For many years, the go-to solution for getting rid of waste was to burn it. This is still the case in many EU countries, such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden.
But that idea is now being challenged by an anti-incineration, “zero waste” wave, which arose in the 1990s in the small Tuscan town of Capannori.
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A primary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini, led protests against a planned incinerator in the vicinity. Residents gathered at town hall meetings to talk of alternative ways to deal with waste. Ercolini brought a trash bag with him and showed how the content could be used again.
”First, regional authorities scrapped plans for the plant. Then the mayor of Capannori put me in charge of changing the collection system,” Ercoloni told EUobserver.
Zero waste is about more than simple recycling, he explained.
”It is an ethical and ecological principle, a goal and a vision, but above all it’s a culture and a way of engaging communities and spreading information. The aim is to prevent waste by recovering, fixing and lengthening the life of an object. Recycling only comes in when all other options have been exhausted,” Ercoloni said.
In 2007, Capannori became the first place in Europe to adopt a zero-waste goal. It has since managed to reduce waste by 40 percent and recycles some 82 percent of the rest.
A British idea
The zero-waste concept was invented by a British scientist, Paul Connett. So why did it take root in Italy? Ercolini suggested that the garbage crisis in Naples helped.
Around Christmas 2007, binmen stopped collecting rubbish in Italy’s third largest city, as they had nowhere to put it. All the nearby dumps had filled up after years of mismanagement by the local mafia.
The streets began overflowing. Some people set fire to bins and toxic smoke spread over the city.
”The catastrophe meant people were open to radical solutions,” Ercolini said.
Naples, and other cities, embraced zero waste as an alternative that was good for the environment, but also for the economy.
Capannori, which has a population of 47,000, created 60 well-paid jobs in recycling and door-to-door collection (the average number of people working in an incinerator is 62). The town saves €2 million a year from sales of recycled materials.
”Europe is poor in raw materials, but our cities are 'urban ores'. We can extract precious metals from old electronics and other garbage,” Ercolini said.
In 2013, he won the Goldman prize, the world’s foremost environmental award.
More than 350 municipalities in seven EU countries have already vowed to reduce their garbage to zero. ”All may not reach that goal but at least they are working in that direction,” Ercoloni said.
People in Treviso generate on average 53 kilograms of non-recyclable waste per inhabitant a year.
In 2014, Slovenia’s Ljubljana became the first EU capital to adopt a zero-waste goal.
The EU’s ambitious realism
So what stops the movement from spreading throughout Europe?
The European Commission last year laid out plans for an industrial revolution. The circular economy package aimed to reform the EU economic model from a “take, make, use, and throw away”, or “linear” - approach, into one in which resources are re-used, repaired, and recycled.
The EU executive wants to set the EU target for recycling municipal waste at 65 percent.
Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans Frans Timmermans told journalists at the time : “We could have also said: 100 percent. And then it would be even more ambitious. But what would that have meant in the real world? We've set a target which we think is very ambitious, but realistic.”
The circular loop
Ella Stengler, from the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), explained to this publication why some waste was not recyclable.
”Materials can be too polluted, or contain substances of high concern which aren’t allowed to be recycled”, she said.
Some materials lose quality after each additional life cycle.
”Paper, for instance, can be recycled up to seven times,” she said.
According to Stengler, waste, which “despite all efforts" cannot be prevented or recycled, should be used to produce electricity and heat. It can replace fossil fuel and help countries to meet renewable energy targets, she noted.
"Energy from waste is considered about 50 percent renewable," Stengler said.
Another reason that helped make waste-to-energy incinerators popular in countries such as Sweden is the cheap cost of energy from waste, even if plants require considerable initial investment.
Many facilities are paid to receive waste.
But one Swedish official told EUobserver that the government is worried that the country has built more incinerators than can be fed.
Sweden has for years had to import trash from other countries.
That recourse could come under pressure as the average EU citizen’s trash heap gets smaller every year and recycling rates increase.
The Commission’s sharpening of the ecodesign directive, which aims to re-design products so that they fit better into the circular economy, will also help to eliminate some waste that cannot be recycled.
Stengler said it would take years, though, before that would affect waste generation.
”We have to be careful with capacity planning and take into account waste prevention and recycling efforts. We do not want overcapacity,” she said.
Sweden was a “specific case”; there is no overcapacity in Europe as a whole.
Stengler added that the lack of reliable statistics was a big issue in capacity discussions.
”Eurostat figures are based on definitions and calculations which diverge between countries,” she said, referring to the EU Commission’s in-house bureau.
There were no reliable figures for commercial and industrial waste that is rejected by recycling facilities.
Ercolini, meanwhile, insisted there was no such thing as non-preventable waste.
He recently convinced Capannori’s local paper mill to look for ways to transform non-recyclable pulp into plastics. The research project receives EU funding.
"Not many things stand between us and a world without trash," he said. "We need to change the way we think about waste, some innovation and, maybe, some brave politicians."