Two very different heroes. One common cause.


At face value, Nohra Padilla and Rossano Ercolini have little in common. Padilla is a grassroots recycler (more commonly known as a waste picker) from Bogota, Columbia and Ercolini is a school teacher from Capannori, Italy.

What unites the pair is their shared ambition of achieving zero waste to landfill or incineration, and their huge personal efforts to further this cause. As a result of their dedication, both were announced as winners of this year’s Goldman Prize, which awards $150,000 each to six grassroots environmentalists who made a real impact on the environment, often against great odds.

The pair demonstrate that the road to zero landfill isn’t easy; both met with opposition from governments, big business with vested interests and even organised crime in the course of their journey. However the overwhelming message of their stories is that dramatically reducing waste to landfill is possible, and that the public are very willing to get on board once they understand what the stakes are…

Nohra Padilla

For Nohra Padilla, recycling is in the blood. Like many in her community, for decades her family has survived by salvaging plastic bottles, aluminium cans, paper scraps, and the like from dumps, curbside trash cans, and collection centers, which are then sold to act as the raw material from products ranging from blue jeans to paper.

In the 1980s, Padilla began organizing her fellow recycling workers, creating the first grassroots recycler cooperative in Bogotá. Since then she has helped to form the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá, or Bogotá Recyclers Association, where she now serves as executive director. The association includes 24 cooperatives representing 3,000 people. She also played an important role in forming and leading Colombia’s National Recyclers Association.

This organisation of the grassroots’ recyclers work helped to quantify the significant positive environmental effects of their work. Through their network of cooperatives, grassroots recyclers in Bogotá recover 20 to 25 percent of all material thrown away by city residents. This amounts to about 100 times more recyclable material than is collected by the city’s large private recycling companies.

Diverting waste from Landfill

The importance of the work these recyclers do was recognised in March when the workers were recognised as city employees. They will now be paid $48 per ton of material they deliver to collection centres, and will be eligible for government pensions and support for healthcare.

Again, Padilla met with significant opposition. Powerful political opponents, a lack of support for worker unionisation and climate subsidies which cut recyclers out of the picture meant Padilla’s would always have a fight on her hands to make a difference.

For example, in 2009, the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism awarded carbon credits to the Doña Juana landfill gas project – a project which threatened the livelihoods of Bogotá’s 21,000 informal recyclers by making it more profitable to send waste to landfill than to recycle it, and by also limiting access to recyclable materials.

The Grassroots Recyclers Association worked hard to mitigate the impact of the project, but had to fight to ensure their community benefits agreement was implemented.  They were successful. The association raised nearly two million dollars, about 75 percent from outside funds and 25 percent co-financed by the association, to build the biggest grassroots-run recycling centre in Latin America.

Rossano Ercolini

Rossano Ercolini began to campaign against incinerators in the 1970s, when he learned of a plan to build one in his own town. Motivated by concern for the health of his students, he began a campaign to educate his community on the dangers of incineration, including how the burning of garbage releases particles which are linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.

As waste incineration was embraced by the Italian government and big environmental organizations, all of whom bought into the premise that it was a safe and effective technology, Ercolini had a David-and-Goliath scale struggle on his hands. Even the mafia supported incineration because of the 20- to 30-year lucrative contracts and large government investments it involved.

Yet Ercolini was undeterred. He gained support for his campaign by working with scientists and waste experts to give local residents the facts on the health risks of incineration, and insight into potential alternatives.

Diverting waste from incineration

As a result, when the residents of Capannori succeeded in defeating the incinerator proposal, they had also developed a real passion to find ways of better handling garbage.

Unsurprising then, that Capannori became the first Italian municipality to declare a zero waste goal for 2020. And Ercolini himself has now helped to defeat 50 proposed incinerators and has also helped the zero waste movement to spread across Italy.

With the help of the Legge Rifiuti Zero (Zero Waste Alliance) and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, there are now 117 zero waste municipalities in Italy, with a population of about 3 million people.

“Incineration is no longer wanted or needed in these areas,” Ercolini says. “Instead, they have established comprehensive recycling and composting systems guided by zero waste goals. This has helped improve community health and has sparked strong collaborations between communities and local governments.”

» Watch the Goldman video about Nohra Padilla

» Watch the Goldman video about Rossano Ercolini