Rossano Ercolini’s journey to zero waste began in 1994 when the regional government of Tuscany put in place plans for two incinerators in the province of Lucca, one in Capannori and the other in Pietrasanta, Versilia.
When Ercolini heard about the local incinerator plans he says he became concerned about their potential impact on the health of local residents and saw it as his responsibility as an educator to protect his students’ well-being and inform the broader community about the incinerator’s risks as well as seeking solutions to sustainably manage the town’s waste.
“In the beginning, I would explain to the students how we can recover valuable material such as metals, paper, cardboard, organic waste, plastic and glass. As long as these materials are kept separate from garbage, they become not garbage, but valuable resources,” he explains.
Ercolini began organising town hall meetings in Capannori, designed so that residents could get clear answers about recycling. He would bring in bags of mixed waste and demonstrate how to sort out materials for recycling and food waste for composting and livestock feed. He also brought in scientists, clergy, and other experts to share information about incineration and the economic and environmental benefits of Zero Waste.
He then formed Ambiente e Futuro (Environment and Future) and began mobilising street protests, where residents demanded that the authorities stop plans for the incinerators. In response to the community’s concerns, the mayor cancelled the plans and put Ercolini in charge of developing a waste management plan, where he went door to door to get the community’s input on alternatives to the incinerator.
He explains: “There was an immediate, positive response from citizens, with an outpouring of participation at our meetings. There wasn’t a lot of information available about incinerators but everyone was very wary of their dangers. They sure were unpopular. We didn’t know about all the solutions out there but it was at that point that we began putting together a plan detailing a way to collect and separate trash.”
A year later, he began implementing a new collection system that now recycles 82% of the city’s waste. Ercolini describes the quality of materials collected via the scheme as “excellent”. He says: “The plastics are rated in the second class in terms of quality, meaning it contains less than 15% of impurities, and are worth 183 euros per tonne. Glass is classified as ‘excellent’ in quality and is paid the maximum rate of 33 euros per tonne, paper is very clean, with less than 5% of impurities and the cardboard is as clean as the metals.”
The 18% of waste that remains goes to landfill in Livorno but Ercolini explains that The Zero Waste Research Center, which he oversees, is studying ways to reduce that volume. This includes work with coffee manufacturers Lavazza, Kimbo, Illy on developing sustainable alternatives to single-use coffee espresso capsules.
So does Ercolini really believe it is possible to have a world without incinerators? “Certainly, we can get by without incinerators. The province of Lucca, with 380,000 residents, has shut down its two existing plants and does not want any more of them. Today, the entire province recycles more than 60% of its waste and is working on a project to recover most of the remaining 40% [via mechanical biological treatment].”
Capannori became the first municipality in Italy to officially adopt the Zero Waste model in 2007 and became a springboard for the nation’s Zero Waste movement. Around 125 other cities have followed suit, including Naples, notorious for having waste left piling up on its streets. Ercolini’s grassroots campaign to educate communities about zero waste has also been credited with scrapping or shutting down 40 incinerators.
He describes winning the award as “an enormous achievement” but will carry on his day job as a teacher to allow him to “remain completely independent”. Does he believe zero waste is really achievable? He replies: “Zero Waste is a road map towards a destination and we aim to get as close as we can.”
About the Goldman Environmental Prize
The Goldman Environmental Prize was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman, designed to support individuals struggling to win environmental victories against the odds and inspire ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world. Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals. Individuals receive a cash prize of US$150,000, the largest such grassroots environmental prize.