Lessons for us from around Europe

A personal view
A personal view
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My curiosity for this month’s column has unsurprisingly taken me on a virtual expedition around Europe, not a political one, more of a ‘rubbish’ one.

ith English recycling rates stagnating, I’ve been on the hunt for some inspirational ambition, sniffing out the wow factor in some of the more ‘refreshing’ recycling bins on the continent.

Zero Waste Europe was the perfect place to start, a research organisation that empowers and supports communities and their leaders to rethink their relationship with resources (www.zerowasteeurope.eu).

And I wasn’t disappointed. Zero Waste Europe has some fascinating case-studies of towns, cities and municipalities that have revolutionised their recycling in recent years.

One of their most impressive examples is the story of Contarina, a company that has helped Treviso in Northern Italy to become Europe’s best performers in waste prevention and recycling. In the province of Treviso, households recycle twice as much as the English or indeed European average (43 per cent), reaching levels of up to 85 per cent. They also create five times less residual waste (i.e. the stuff that ends up in our black bins). With results like that, even if it wasn’t seeking international attention, it certainly deserves it.

Zero Waste Europe credits the success of Treviso to a range of factors: separated bin collections – including food waste separation; a pay-as-you-throw system that rewards less wasteful households with cheaper bills; waste reduction incentives such as discounts for households that compost at home; transparency and efficiency – such as access to view your own collection data – and a political commitment to continuously improving the system.

Across Treviso these steps have helped to reduce the average yearly fee for households to €178.9 compared to Italy’s national average of €245.6.

By 2022 Contarino and its network of municipality mayors are aiming for a 96.7 per cent recycling rate – without even using incineration – by making use of better technology, increasing home composting and encouraging less food waste and packaging. Contarino is also creating a ‘Zero Waste Observatory’ to monitor what’s left and what could be redesigned.

In improving resource management, it is imperative that redesign should not be overlooked. After recycling and reuse, knowledge about what’s left in the waste bin can be invaluable for changing systems. Redesign needs to be further up the priority list for more companies and it’s important that problem products are better researched and communicated. Follow in my footsteps on the Zero Waste Europe site to Copenhagen and you’ll see last year’s Redesign Innovation Jam, which pulled together experts and innovators from Denmark, Sweden, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, France and Russia. Their challenge was to redesign a number of products & services that could be delivered in a much more sustainable way to consumers.

Taking a leap around Europe can give us an insight into the Zero Waste efficiencies and the green jobs that can be created when ambition is high. The Contarina and Treviso story is just one example. There’s also great stuff coming out from Ljubljana in Slovenia, Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country and Argentona in Catalonia, to mention just a few.

As the day gives way to the election count, we will soon know the outcome of the EU Referendum. Will we remain in or will our leaders be getting ready to dispose of EU legislation in their recycling bins?

Whatever we have voted, I hope that those in charge of England’s waste strategy and the Treasury purse strings finally wake up from their infuriating inaction and give us the ambitious and well-supported strategy that our country deserves.

I’ve said it before that a Remain vote would help support investment and innovation for better recycling and the creation of green jobs around the UK. If it’s a Brexit, we’ll need to lobby central government even more.