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The "Virtuous Cities' movement aims to cut costs and waste. And change the world


Recycling al'Italiano (Kevin Hutchinson)

COLORNO - Spending half-a-day with Marco Boschini is "bello e istruttivo" (beautiful and instructive), to paraphrase Italian writer Giovannino Guareschi. But the beauty and acquired wisdom comes at a cost. Without uttering a word, Boschini will make you feel uneasy for the smallest foibles: leave a room without turning out the light, or propose taking the car when you could easily walk, or even leave a morsel of food uneaten while dining out, and judgment is quickly meted out.

Marco Boschini, 36, is the national coordinator for the Association of Virtuous Cities, a kind of parallel world which aims to combat the failures of the modern era - from pollution to the economic crisis – by reintroducing into our daily lives a healthy dose of that age-old virtue our grandparents taught: thrift.

Boschini is an after-school teacher and city administrator in urban and environmental planning in Colorno, a town of 9,000 in Northern Italy. This humble profile, however, belongs to someone trying to spark a revolution.

Boschini recalls how the movement began with Colorno, two other northern towns, Vezzano Ligure and Monsano, and the southern town of Melpignano in Puglia. "The impetus was the belief that the economic development model of today not only has led to global disasters, but has also had an impact on the lives of small local communities," Boschini said.

Today there are 48 Italian municipalities participating in the Virtuous City movement. The simple idea is to spark a revolution through small daily actions, a sort of modern Italian version of the Amish. "They can laugh all they want at us," Boschini says. "But throughout history there are examples where the small acts by ordinary people have led to revolutionary changes."

One example, he cites: "For years we have been saying: When you go shopping be sure to bring a canvas bag so you don't need to take plastic bags from the supermarket? And for this they called us the Taliban. But now the government has finally banned plastic bags.

"Do you have an idea of how many plastic bags we use each year in Italy?" he asks, pausing with a theatrical flash: "Twenty-four million! Do you have any idea how much damage that does to our ecosystem? So that is an example of a bottom-up revolution." Indeed, reusing a canvas bag thousand of times is really just a question of getting in the habit of doing it.

A year and a half ago, the town of Capannori, in the Tuscan province of Lucca with a population of 50,000, opened a special kind of shop called Effecorta. "Do you know what they are doing in that shop? They only sell products without the packaging. Food, detergents, cosmetics and so on. All loose, offered in a long row of glass containers. You go there with a box, takes the dough and cookies and head home. People who buy in the store do not produce waste, you know? Now many are following suit."

The saying is ‘last one out, turn out the lights' Boschini and his colleague want to change it to ‘turn out the lights when you don't need them."

In the town of Laveno Mombello, on Lake Maggiore, a professor at a technical institute has launched the ‘Guardians of the light" initiative. Each month a student is responsible for controlling wasted energy. If you see that it's sunny, open the curtain and pull the switch whether you are in the classroom or in the gym. Guess how much they saved on their bill without changing the system? Fifty-five percent."

Italy's mineral water-drinking habit is another target. "In almost all the school cafeterias of our communities we have replaced bottled water with the ‘mayor's water," which is just tap water. In our small town alone we can avoid the purchase of 200,000 plastic bottles a year. Bottles that are first transported by trucks that pollute, and then end up in the trash. Now, think of such operations in Milan and Naples."

Boschini's goal -- like all revolutionaries -- seems crazy: "We want to reach a point where we are producing zero waste. I realize that it seems impossible but for example in Colorno we introduced a door-to-door trash collection system. There are no more dumpsters on the street. Instead every family has at least four bins: for paper, plastics, organic materials and ‘other". So we are now recycling almost everything."

He ticks off all the program's advantages: The citizen will now not buy what he deems unnecessary, and he pays lower taxes for waste collection. The city saves on the incinerator and creates jobs for the door-to-door collection. "The main objection is that creating a world that consumes less means fewer jobs. But we have calculated that if all the municipalities did the door-to-door collection, 300,000 jobs would be created." And as for his goal of "zero waste," Boschini cites Italy's national average annual waste per capita at 600-650 pounds. "In many of our communities, we are under 40 pounds."

A former member of the center-left party, Boschini says he left a while ago. "Our initiatives are boycotted by all parties, even the left." Could it be that you're just a pain in the ass? "We certainly are in the eyes a ruling class that is not up to the job, and culturally unprepared to understand the scale of the challenges we face."

He mentions the southern town of Camigliano, part of the Virtuous Cities movement, that was penalized because it has reduced the amount of trash it produces by 70 per cent, allowing it to be exempt from the regional regulations.

"They penalize the only city without trash on the streets," he says. "So you tell me: are we the crazy ones?"

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