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Community commits to incinerator alternative

This story is about the districts of Priula and Treviso, just up the road from Venice.

But it starts in 1994 with a one-man campaign in Tuscany. When teacher Rossano Ercolini heard that his regional government wanted to build two incinerators for waste, he was concerned about their potential impact on the health of local residents, and saw it as his responsibility as an educator to inform his community and seek other solutions to manage local waste sustainably.

One of a dozen Italian communities to pick up the Ercolini baton was the province of Treviso which set up Contarina, a publicly owned company, which is responsible for the management of waste from 550,000 people in 50 municipalities. Each community has political leaders who had to agree on a joint approach despite the spectrum of their views. But agree they did.

The area is now among the best performers in waste prevention and recycling in Europe. It has reached levels of source separation of up to 85% and generates only 53kg of residual waste per inhabitant per year. In contrast, the EU average level is 42% source separation and 285kg per inhabitant. And there is a commitment to achieve more: Contarina has set a goal of 96.7% recycling by 2022 and a cut in the annual residual waste to 10kg per person. 

The presentation at the Resource Association (RA) meeting was delivered by Contarina’s international relations manager Marco Mattiello, who heads a company with nearly 700 employees and an annual turnover of €84m (£60m). He set out two key policies which drove the recycling success: one was source segregation and the second was payas- you throw (PAYT).

Contarina’s standard containers for lower population areas are typical: wheelie bins for paper, glass, organics and so on. Smaller bins are given to those living in ‘complex urban areas’, while small bags are given to those with restricted space. Dry recyclates are collected fortnightly, residual is weekly, while food waste is picked up three times a week.

What is less typical is the smart recognition that strict collection rounds and regimes do not always suit householders. To reinforce the usual rounds, skips are placed temporarily at pre-arranged times in different locations, while vehicles are sent on well-publicised routes such as those for buses for people who either miss their collections or have more waste than they can store and have to throw more often.

And so to PAYT. Italy’s waste regulations devolve decisions such as charging to individual communities. Contarina’s business plan models that of a utility, with 60% of a householder’s fee fixed and based on occupancy. The remaining 40% is a variable fee depending on how much waste a household generates. The company logs the number of ‘residual’ bins dealt with rather than weight, and there is a fixed quota for garden waste. There is a rebate for those who home compost.

The numbers are impressive. In 2000, the local recycling rate was 27.2%; it is now 84.5%. But the real kick came in 2002-04 when the PAYT regime took the rate to more than 70%. Mattiello’s statistics impressed the RA audience, judging from the questions:

  • How much does the local authority have to chip in to support the business? Nothing.
  • How does Contarina manage when the prices for recyclates go south? The core emphasis on quality means there are always customers.
  • Your fees must be more than other com­munities? No. Since 2001, the national cost to householders has gone up an average 93%. The regional increase is 27.8%. Our fees have gone up 14.8%.
  • What about management costs? In 2013, ours were €104 per user compared with the national €218.
  • So you must be very lean on staff? No, we have increased our staff this year but our total management and disposal costs are the same.

One obvious difference between this Italian example and the UK is public buy-in. The zero-waste initiatives that followed Ercolini’s campaign came about because he was prepared to accept that, if his community did not want incinerators, then they had to commit to an alternative, whatever that might be.

Contarina places huge store on its community interaction. Recycling is on every school timetable, including educational visits. The firm has staff dedicated to social media, encouraging participation and responding to queries and complaints. Open days are attended by thousands of residents.

Best of all, the scheduled visits of the supplementary collection vehicles mentioned earlier are seen as a cracking reason for older residents to leave their homes with a chair and bottle of wine to meet friends, sit and talk while they recycle. What price that sort of engagement in the UK?

You can hear from Mattiello in the Circular Economy Connect Theatre at RWM at 13.30 on 16 September


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