To waste or not to waste

Boubacar Diallo stands with a microphone in the middle of Turin’s Porto Palazzo market in his blue and gold Dashiki holding up a yellow grapefruit in a pose intended to mimic the famous image of Shakespeare’s Hamlet holding a skull. “To throw it away, or not throw it away,” he intones, “that is the question.” As a representative of Ecomoro, a group of migrants and asylum seekers that are fighting food waste in Turin, his convictions allow him to be more decisive than the famously wavering Hamlet.

Every day at closing time, the Ecomori wade through the vendors’ stalls collecting food that would otherwise be thrown away. This they sort, box and distribute to those in need of food. They are one of a number of groups that have united around the market as a nexus developing social, health, cultural and environmental possibilities in the city. The Porta Palazzo Organic Project is not just about feeding the hungry, but also about raising awareness around food waste, and even recovering inedible food waste to send it to a local composting facility.

Volunteers working at food stalls in Turin

In its first four years, this has seen the recovery of and redistribution of over 450 tonnes of edible food and increased the proper sorting and recycling rate from 45% to 89% of all waste generated by the market. “Dignity,” pronounces Donatella Genisio, Director of The Gate, a municipally run limited company for urban regeneration, which is the major output of this project. “Anyone who attended the market before,” she recalls, “knew at the end of the sales hours there were those who were known in slang as ‘hens,’ people, elderly people but also young people that went about on the ground to find food.”

There were those who were known in slang as ‘hens’
— Donatella Genisio

Thanks to this project, a finalist in the 2021 Eurocities Awards, no one needs to go down on their hands and knees just to find food in Turin. The Ecomori who collect the food work with local non-profit Eco dalle Città, volunteers who establish a presence and build trust with local vendors over a period of weeks and months as they help to promote the proper sorting of organic waste.

Vendors and volunteers

At first, many vendors were sceptical about the practice. They were reasonably worried that distributing food for free at the end of the day would discourage people from purchasing their produce at list price. These worries were overcome by the personal relationships developed between the Ecomori and the vendors, as well as through consultation with the vendors association that led to adjusting the hours at which the free food was distributed. Over time, the relationship between the volunteers and vendors developed to the point where they were comfortable donating their unsold foods to the organisation.

The volunteers also take the used wooden and cardboard food crates, many of which used to be abandoned and scattered around the market after closing, and use them to hold the sorted food packages designed to provide a balanced diet.

An experiment has actually become a real job for many of us
— Omar Sillah

Many of Eco dalle Città’s volunteers are asylum seekers, and besides the joy that they get from the feeling of community and doing good, the work has evolved to formalise other benefits. The Porta Palazzo Organic Project has facilitated the creation of two permanent contracts, 18 professional internships and dozens of paid collaborations. In total, more than 120 Ecomori have participated so far. Volunteers are offered accreditation for a civic-engagement experience by the city, which can bolster their asylum claims

“Over the past five years,” Ecomori Omar Sillah says proudly, “an experiment has actually become a real job for many of us. From the beginning it was not very easy but today we say it has gone very well. Until today we have seen only progress.” He also notes the “support from the municipality and other entities,” that makes the work possible.

Volunteers serving food at a stall in Turin

A practical need

This has all come about as a result of a partnership between the City of Turin’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, the municipal multiutility provider Amiat Spa, a corporate sponsor Novamont Spa, as well as Eco dalle Città and a number of community organisations. It began with an extensive consultation period involving community and trade groups, municipal offices, corporate partners and local NGOs, which led to the city launching a pilot project Porto Palazzo, Europe’s largest open air market.

We had a practical need to make the square more decent when the market finished up for the day
— Christian Aimaro

The multiutility provider, Amiat, has furthered the cause with interventions such as replacing the original diesel-operated waste compactors in the market with electric ones that have the double benefit of reducing emissions and noise. The company also collaborates to track the quantities of waste collected and sorted in the market so that the success of the project can be measured accurately. “We had a practical need,” explains Amiat president Christian Aimaro, “to make the square more decent when the market finished up for the day.”

The littered square in Turin after the market closes

Food hub Mercato Centrale lent a hand by giving a free stall to the volunteers, complete with a kitchen, walk-in refrigerators and sitting area. This space, ‘the Circular Economy Stall,’ is destined to become a laboratory to showcase new circular economy processes, such as the cultivation of fresh mushrooms from spent coffee grains from the local coffeeshop. It is also a space for events, the distribution of food and circular economy themed books as well as initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

Meanwhile the corporate sponsor, Novamont, has provided 40,000 biodegradable takeaway containers branded with the city’s zero waste initiative. The company has also placed special bins for food waste around the market. Because market vendors work long hours at a fast pace, it was difficult for them to collect all their waste and bring them to the designated site for depositing it, so this intervention is a huge plus for them. During large events, the city also provides 100% reusable and compostable cups as well as stainless steel water bottles, all branded to announce the local zero waste policy.

A new biodegradable bio-waste rubbish bin

The city also works to monitor the project and ensure that different municipal departments are on hand to make it run smoothly. This ranges from granting public-space permits to engaging with the local police. The city also works with the municipal multiutility company to include the project in service contracts so that cooperation is a given.

Letting it grow

Another important role for the city is promoting the practice. It has already been expanded to include additional municipal markets, with the total quantities of unsold foods recovered and redistributed exceeding 800 kg per day, and the city is helping other Italian and even non-Italian EU cities to learn to do the same.

It is not just among cities, however, that this anti-waste mentality is being spread, but also among local people and tourists. As Porto Palazzo is Turin’s central market, people from all over the city converge there, and it is also one of the city’s biggest transit hubs. Turin’s administration has consequently jumped on this opportunity to raise awareness around food waste, and it has some surprising allies for the cause.

Recovered food served in a trendy café

Besides cookouts, volunteers also use song and dance, as wells a juggling and backflips to get the message across. Anita Cuneo, a student at FLIC Circus School, can be seen waving her hula-hoop around in the middle of the crowded square, among balancing acrobats and tambourine-beating singers, after the brief Italian introduction in the video below. She says this is a natural cause for circus artists.

We can put it in our show and give it a new life within our stories
— Anita Cuneo

For her, participating is “an excellent opportunity to realise how with a small gesture we can achieve the reduction of waste and litter.” As artists, she says, “when we see a broken object that is about to be thrown away, we immediately go to recover it so maybe we can put it in our show and give it a new life within our stories.” For that reason, according to Cuneo, “we care about this recycling initiative and we are very happy to be here to participate in this beautiful experience.”

So, the next time that you glance at some half-rotten piece of food in your bin, recall a less oft-quoted line of Hamlet’s: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Through creativity and spirit, hard work and negotiation, volunteering, acrobatics and song, Turin has transformed the scourge of food waste at the end of the market day into an opportunity for community to bud and an avenue for social and ecological good to bloom.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer