Parma’s journey to world-class food waste recycling levels

Kat Heinrich

22 August 2018

Parma is a Northern Italian city home to nearly 200,000 people. Over four years (from 2012 to 2016) the city revolutionised its waste and recycling services. They replaced street containers with kerbside collections. They also introduced a pay-as-you-throw scheme for residual waste. Food waste recycling levels have since doubled.

The average person in Parma now sorts about 100 kg of food waste per year. Contamination rates are low at 3-4%. Overall, the city diverts about 90% of food waste for recycling, making it amongst the world’s best.

I met with Gabriele Folli, they city’s former Deputy Mayor for the Environment, to hear about Parma’s journey. In this interview, Gabriele describes how they introduced the new system. He shares insights into their successes, some of the challenges they faced and how they overcame them.

Gabriele Folli, Deputy Mayor for the Environment (2012-2017), Municipality of Parma (Italy)

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about Parma?

The city is home to about 200,000 people. 15% of population comes from abroad, and there’s an important presence of university students from outside Parma. The city is made up of three areas. The historic centre, the urban area and the rural area. Most people live in the urban area, which is high density. We have some buildings with up to 100 families. 

What were the key drivers for changing the waste and recycling system?

Only 48.5% of waste was separately collected for recycling. The rest of the waste (residual stream) was sent to landfill or incineration. This was very costly (at 170 euro per tonne for incineration). We wanted to increase recycling levels and reduce costs. So we set ourselves a goal to achieve 80% separate collection by 2017.

Can you describe the major changes to the system?

In 2012, most households and businesses disposed of their waste and recycling using road containers. Only one third of the city received kerbside (door-to-door) collection of waste and recyclables. We replaced road containers with kerbside collections across the whole city. This was done slowly, one area at a time.

Each family received a kitchen caddy and a free supply of compostable liners to separately sort food waste in their kitchen. Buildings were given a bio-waste bin where residents could dispose of their separated food waste. The bio-waste bin is collected twice a week (or three times for families living in the historic centre). Families were also provided:

  • Special bags for plastic, metals and tetra-pak collected once per week

  • A paper and cardboard box (to be emptied into a building container collected once a week)

  • Residual bin collected once a once a week (or twice for select areas)

Residents were able to select the size of the residual bin (from 40 litres up to 240 litres).

We kept roadside containers for people to drop off their glass and green waste.

Following full roll-out of the kerbside system, we introduced a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) scheme for residual waste.

Waste and recycling services for families in Parma

Can you describe how the PAYT system works?

Each residual waste bag or bin has an RFID chip that identifies the owner (household or business). They are charged a fixed and variable component for collection of the waste. Included in the fixed component is a minimum volume of residual waste. This minimum volume is set based the number of persons in the family. For example, a 3 person family has 960 litres of residual waste included in the fixed component of their bill. If they use a 40 litre bin, then this equates to 24 collections per year. If they need to, they can put their bin out more often (up to once a week). But every time they do this they’re charged an extra 1.40 euros. Most residents (80%) and businesses (70%) are able to stick to the minimum volume of residual waste included in the fixed component of their bill.

Entitlement for minimum volume of residual waste included in the waste bill based on number of persons per family.

Are people with nappy waste charged the same?

No. We only charge the fixed component of the bill to families with babies 30 months or younger, the disabled and elderly people. We also offer them double the collection frequency for residual waste.

How do the total costs of waste and recycling services compare to previous costs?

In the first three years the cost of waste and recycling services increased. This was due to additional costs for communication campaigns and equipment associated with rolling out the new system. Over time the cost has come down. In 2016 it returned to 2010 levels.

Waste bill for 3 persons in 100 square meter. For 2016 considered maximium discount possible.
Did you face any complaints with the new system?

At the beginning we held public meetings explaining the new system. People were afraid that a once a week collection of residual waste was not enough. To help manage this, we rolled out 8 eco stations where people could drop off extra waste and recyclables if they needed to. People could access these stations 24/7 using access cards (their health care card that had dual use). We used cameras to avoid illegal dumping. The bins at the eco station were fitted with sensors to send alerts when they were nearly full and needing collection. The batteries were powered by solar panels. These eco stations are hardly used, but helped to alleviate public concerns. They also help manage additional waste volumes during high-generation periods (like holiday season). Most people found that once a week kerbside collection of residual waste worked fine for them.

“There was a percieved issue that the new system would lead to increased illegal dumping. However, in reality this was not a big problem.”

– Gabriele Folli, Deputy Mayor for the Environment (2012-2017), Muncipality of Parma

Has illegal dumping become a bigger issue since introducing the new system?

There was a perceived issue that the new system would lead to increased illegal dumping. However, in reality this was not a big problem. On average, illegal dumping volumes were 0.5 kg per person per year. To disincentive dumping, we designed the PAYT system with a minimum volume of residual waste included in the fixed component of the waste bill. We also monitor and manage any dumping that occurs. We developed an app where people can report any sightings of dumping.

What messaging did you give to the public when rolling out the new system?

There were a few messages, including:

  1. We have to do this because we need to change our behavior. We are wasting so many resources paper, plastic and it’s causing environmental problems.
  2. If we recycle, the material has value. We can save the city money and return it to people who are doing the right thing (are sorting their waste). You can choose not to sort your waste, but you’ll have to pay more than a family who sorts their waste.
  3. If you used a commercial contractor to collect your waste, you’d pay a lot more
  4. On average, our waste services costs 100 euros less than other cities

What is the biggest challenge you faced through this whole process?

An incineration facility was being built before the start of our political mandate. It was hard to tell the former administration that it was unuseful to build an incinerator before introducing separate kerbside collections. The plant is now running. It was forecast that the facility would run at 130,000 tonnes per annum (tpa). This included 70,000 tpa from Parma and the remaining volumes from other cities in the region. After two years of running the plant, waste volumes received from Parma have reduced to 20,000 tpa. At the same time, other cities in the region are introducing separate collections and reducing their waste volumes. Building the facility was very costly and unuseful.

How could Parma’s system be further improved in the future?

The frequency of residual waste collections is still too high compared to generation. It would be good to reduce it to further drive down costs.

To conclude, what were the key factors behind Parma’s success?

  1. Strong information system: We ensured we had a strong information system to support the PAYT scheme. This included RFIDs on bins/bags and truck readers integrated with billing systems.
  2. Trialling: We started testing the technology for the PAYT scheme in January 2015. We spent 6 months checking that the RFID reading system worked before we started billing.
  3. Invest in media and communications: We invested heavily in providing information to the community about the new system. This included information on why we were introducing it, as well as, how it works.
  4. Political will: People will always complain at the beginning when services change. It’s important to listen to them and to be accomodating where practical. But at the end of the day, it’s important to stick with your decision to introduce it.
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