Zero hero

Goldman Environmental Prize winner Rossano Ercolini tackled Italy’s mounting waste problem and achieved what many environmentalists had only dreamed of. He talks to Rachel England about his unlikely zero waste journey

With no previous environmental activism behind him, Rossano Ercolini, then a 37-year-old school teacher, seemed like an unlikely candidate to begin championing the destruction of incinerators and promoting the zero waste message across Europe. But a 20-year journey of challenges, successes and prestigious awards says otherwise.

Today, Italian-born Rossano is recognised as the European winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize – the world’s largest prize for grassroots activists – for his significant work in tackling Italy’s mounting waste crisis and spreading a message of sustainable living across the globe. Thanks to his efforts, regions in Italy are achieving remarkable rates of recycling where once politicians had all but given up on the issue, such was the extent of dumping, fly-tipping and landfilling.

His zero waste journey began in 1994, when the council in his hometown of Capannori announced plans to build two waste incinerators just two kilometres from the school where he taught. Incineration was a popular method of waste disposal at the time, billed as a ‘sustainable’ alternative to landfill and backed by messages of innovation and efficiency left over from the 80s.

“But there is more to incineration than that,” Rossano tells Positive News. “The incinerators pump out harmful smoke and carbon dioxide, and it is a waste of materials that could be recycled and used again.”

With overflowing landfills, poor waste removal management and allegations of corrupt mafia dealings surrounding the waste issue, simply ‘incinerating the problem’ was an attractive proposition for many officials. But Rossano felt differently.

“Zero waste is not a destination, it’s a journey. We won’t complete it tomorrow, that’s obvious, but we have to start today”

“I felt a duty to get involved with these important issues,” he says. “So I started to organise small information meetings around Capannori, progressing to bigger meetings. We would discuss the harmful emissions from incinerators, as well as the alternatives – namely separated recycling collections [where materials such as glass, card and metal are separated out of general rubbish].

“It soon became clear that the community felt the same way as I did about the plans for the incinerators. Of course, the problem came in convincing the politicians.”

Such was the trend for incineration at the time, Rossano struggled to find support from the scientific community. “The politicians would say that the incinerators weren’t dangerous, or at least weren’t as dangerous as older incarnations of incinerators, and we needed back-up to prove this wasn’t true.”

Eventually, Rossano and his team were put in touch with Dr Paul Connett, an American professor and activist whose work in the field of incineration and waste management has won him numerous awards and citations.

“We invited him to speak at a very large waste conference in Lucca, and such was the weight of his argument that our victory quickly became very apparent. In 1997, the incinerator project was scrapped.”

It wasn’t just an environmental argument that won the battle, either. Both Rossano and Dr Connett advocate the economic benefits of recycling in place of incineration. Recycling creates up to 20 times as many jobs as simply burning waste does, and plays a major role in helping councils achieve EU-imposed targets on waste – failure to do so will mean hefty fines. Then of course, in a world where resources are becoming increasingly scarce, councils are able to capitalise on the princely sum they can command for their salvaged materials.

“Capannori was the first council to adopt a ‘zero waste’ approach, and now boasts an excellent 80% rate of recycling. Before this, it was just 11%,” says Rossano, whose programme of waste education and awareness has resulted in 124 other councils in Italy developing their own zero waste strategies.

Next on the agenda for Rossano is Naples, arguably the most rubbish-ridden area of Italy. “Naples has always been a challenge because of the politics there,” he says. “But in 2011 the new mayor Luigi de Magistris arrived and made the waste issue a priority. We helped shape a waste strategy for the city and rolled out a door-to-door collection model, which will be expanded to a further 500,000 inhabitants in June.

“Currently Naples is at a 30% recycling rate. We hope to get it to 50% by the end of the year. If it’s possible in Naples, then it’s possible anywhere!”

Rossano is also involved in a number of other waste minimisation projects, including working with UK director Candida Brady on her new environmental docu-film Trashed, and teaming up with leading Italian coffee brand Lavazza to develop an alternative to their single-use coffee capsules.

“I noticed that a lot of rubbish bags in Italy are full of this coffee packaging,” says Rossano. “So I contacted Lavazza and they responded immediately, wanting to work together to find a solution to the problem. This is encouraging, and shows that people are generally aware of the issues and want to do something about it.”

He adds: “Zero waste is not a destination, it’s a journey. We won’t complete it tomorrow, that’s obvious, but we have to start today.”