Earlier this year, a zero waste conference in Capannori in Tuscany, Italy was attended by more than 100 people from all over Italy - and one from Buxton (me).
I'd heard about the conference through the European Zero Waste network and was really curious about the amazing increase of zero waste local authorities in Italy. I'd lived in Italy for several years, and during that time there were continual crises of waste management, the most infamous being the Naples where rubbish stood in the streets for months amid popular anger at toxic waste being dumped on their doorstep. Naples and several other cities that suffered in the crisis have started a policy of moving towards zero waste, and many activists and local government officers from these cities were at the conference. Italy's waste problems are far from over, but one result of the highly visible and smelly problem, is that the question of what to do with waste wasn't hidden away. Let's hope that it doesn't take something like that to open people's eyes here.
Capannori, the host for the conference, doesn't fit the desperate profile of the crisis-hit cities. It's a rural area that includes several small settlements, in the Lucca province that is famous for its high-quality olive oil. It was one of the first local authorities in Europe to opt for a policy of zero waste and over the last 10 years has reduced the amount of waste generated by around 40% percent and increased the level of recovery and recycling of materials from the waste stream from around 30% to 82%. Not satisfied with that, they've set up a research facility to look at what goes into the remaining 15%. Products that can't be recycled are identified, manufacturers written to, and alternatives sought.
The project has involved the whole community. The flat I stayed in had the instructions for rubbish separation prominently displayed, and my hosts, though not activists, were very positive about it. Children at the local primary school are involved in letter writing campaigns against non-recyclable plastic toys given away in publicity stunts. Local farmers provide dispensing systems where people can refill their milk bottles. A local company has designed and produced reusable nappies and local pharmacies are offering the first reusable nappy free to new parents. A new store uses dispensing systems so that plastic containers are not needed. It has around 60 taps dispensing all kinds of liquids including detergents, shampoo, honey, oil, and wine, and about the same number of containers for solids such as pasta, rice and beans.
At the conference I heard of initiatives at all levels - from the EU directive on the circular economy, which prioritises recovery of raw materials as a lower energy alternative to mining, to the local initiatives to recovery electrical goods and furniture from the waste stream and teach young people how to restore them. People talked about initiatives in their areas - small towns and large cities - and about the environmental and economic benefits of zero waste policies.
The most important lesson I learned is that there is no single solution to dealing with waste. The first step is to stop seeing it as waste and a problem and to start seeing it as materials that can provide opportunities for new economic activity. Once that message gets out to the community, many different small initiatives can go a long way to finding uses for those materials. And quite a lot of the remainder that can't be recovered - well, it shouldn't have been made in the first place!
So, could High Peak become a Zero Waste area? Why not? It's certainly too good to waste.