European Parliament eh! Well I'd never been there before, until last Thursday when I'd been invited to give a presentation about The Rubbish Diet at a conference organised by Zero Waste Europe.
The event, which was held in one of the large committee rooms in Brussels, brought together zero waste strategists, product designers, researchers, waste managers, communities and politicians from across Europe to discuss the cornerstones that are needed to move towards a society that is no longer so heavily dependent on landfill and incineration, integrating resource efficient solutions instead.
It was evident from the debates that we still have a long way to go, especially concerning national and local political will. However it was also clear from the presentations that there are some great models of how society is changing, especially in Italy where there are now 123 towns, villages and cities actively signed up to Zero Waste goals, which are not just about waste but deliver economic, social and environmental benefits as well. It all started with the small town of Capannori, where they now have a recycling rate of 82% and have introduced a range of waste reduction initiatives including a research centre, which now liaises closely with industry.
The province of Gipuzkoa in the Spanish Basque Country is also another case study to watch closely. It was impressive to see how they have turned their waste strategy around from planned incineration, which would have cost 400 million Euros, to a solution supported by 3 MBT plants, 6 composting plants and a biogas generator, costing 183 million Euros by comparison. Inaki Errakzin, the Environment Minister also outlined how, thanks to better recycling, their approach has helped reduce waste from a projected 240,000 tonnes in 2012 to 209,000. In Hernani, an area with 20k residents, many living in apartment blocks, they have also seen the average amount of waste decrease from 250 kilos per person per year to just 70 kilos. Currently 54 towns out of a total of 88 have signed up to zero waste goals, working towards a target of 75% recycling by 2020.
In attendance, for part of the day, was Janez Potočnik, the EU Commissioner for Environment, who also launched the Plastic Waste Green Paper that very same day, which I understand has already received a great deal of coverage in the UK media.
Potočnik sees waste not as a problem but as an opportunity, where with the right economic incentives and outcomes could see 400,000 new jobs across the EU.
It was encouraging to hear his drive, commitment, pragmatism and enthusiasm as he described how not only must we limit energy recovery to materials that cannot be reused or recycled, but we must also be careful about creating overcapacity. He also declared that there should be zero plastic waste in the environment.
The Green Paper will now see consultations across industry alongside consumers and public administrations. If you are interested in responding, you can access the relevant papers here and I suggest that you do.
I'm quite relieved I didn't have to give my presentation in that rather large committee room, with its daunting setting and a multitude of translators. The afternoon was in a much more intimate space as shown below.
Here, we got to hear about some fantastic activities that are taking place across Europe, including an introduction to the excellent Reethaus design studio in Estonia, which creates clothes from fashion waste, an industry which suffers from all sorts of waste issues arising from cutting leftovers, roll ends, planned over-production and excess fabric, not to mention problems such as rejected and cancelled orders as well as faulty items.
Currently the design house works with factories in Bangladesh, where the fabric would otherwise be destroyed in incinerators. Working in this way, they are able to produce garments using up to 95% less energy and 70% less water for each item. I love creative design solutions like this and this practical case-study complemented an earlier presentation from the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute where we learned about products such as carpet being made from old recycled carpet and Puma trainers made from recycled PET, supported by a take-back scheme. In the design world, there is much going on to change the way we look at manufacturing.
On the subject of designing out waste, if your Italian skills or Google Translate fancy a work out, you'll also be inspired by the Effecorta cooperative in Italy, a growing chain of shops which specialises in packaging-free produce. Having begun in Capannori, the first zero waste community in Italy, the stores have now expanded to Ferrara and Milan. More information is available on the Zero Waste Europe website.
One of my favourite presentations was from Pal Martenssen from the Kretsloppsparken, in Goteborg, Sweden. Kretsloppsparken is a household waste recycling centre, but not as we know it. It goes far beyond your average site, providing regular entertainment and education on tap as well as lovely gardens and a cafe too. In fact, for some of the music events, they ask customers to pay in recycling rather than cash.
So if your Swedish is up to scratch, you can find out more about the park in this video. But don't worry, even if, like me, you can't speak a work of Swedish, you'll still get a feel for what it offers.
Trashed documentary, which was introduced by Jeremy Irons who had also been at European Parliament for the launch of the Green Paper.
Jeremy Irons addressed the audience, highlighting the issues of plastic waste that had witnessed during the making of Trashed. If you haven't already seen it, you can read more in an earlier review I wrote about it here.
Some of his final words were that we have to make this problem as sexy as possible, to capture the interest and commitment from as many people as possible.
I wholeheartedly agree and have a few cunning plans up my sleeve myself, but for starters here's a fabulous lip-smacking bin lorry poster that I saw the following day, on a field trip to a waste management plant in Flanders, which boasts a 74% municipal recycling rate. I confess they implement a pay-as-you-throw scheme which has helped get residents more engaged, but I reckon some clever advertising must also go a long way.
It was a real privilege to be part of such a momentous event, which is now expected to draw further interest from the MEPs that were in attendance. There must be many more great case studies to be shared from around the continent and this could be the first event of many.
'But what of the sexy recycling bins at European Parliament?' I hear you ask... I am sure you're keen to know.
Well guess what I found in the corridors of the power house of Europe?
It's not quite the sexy pose I had up my sleeve but a good dose of comedy enthusiasm must help surely and certainly beats the alternative idea of bin planking!
How I ever got allowed through the doors of the European Parliament, I'll never know.