3 lessons on how to recycle water from Prato

Simina Lazar

By Simina Lazar, on February 23rd, 2018

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A story of water from rainbow to recycled

Imagine a rainbow river in your city. Every time you pass by its water can be green, deep crimson or dark blue. You might think it is an artistic performance or a militant statement. You might think it is an ingenious way for the Municipality to interact with its citizens. Unfortunately none of the situations above apply. This was the daily life of the inhabitants of Prato (IT) until the 70s. Why? The water infrastructure of the city was overloaded by the textile industry of the area. Then in the City of Prato a highly inventive and effective Wastewater Treatment System was created. Here are three lessons one can draw from their experience.

I had the chance to visit Prato last autumn during a meeting of the Circular Economy partnership of the Urban Agenda. While Prato’s sewage treatment system seems very straightforward, it is the cornerstone of a sustainable infrastructure, at the crossroads between economic growth, jobs creation and a green environment.  

With a population of nearly 200 000 inhabitants, Prato is a middle-sized city in the center of Italy. Known for its textile tradition centuries old, the city has also made it through the pages of the New York Times as it holds one of the biggest Chinese communities in Europe, engaged in the fashion industry.

Fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world. It requires around 93 billion cubic meters of water a year, according to a report issued by the Ellen McArthur Foundation last year. But Prato was lucky. With its Bisenzio river, its intricate system of canals and its underground water supply, it managed to provide the necessary quantities, or at least so until the 70s. Benefiting from the Italian economic boom, the city’s industry was growing and so its need for water. This is the moment when in Prato the Plant specialized in Waste Water Purification GIDA was born. Created in 1981, the system is still considered today an example to follow by other European cities in terms of water management and sewage treatment. Here are some ingredients of their method.

1.     A public-private partnership


GIDA was created as a public-private partnership between the Municipality of Prato and the Regional Industrial Confederation, where the majority of the shares of GIDA are today publicly owned. Through its 5 different plants, GIDA manages all the wastewater from both the industry and the citizens. This amounts to up to 50 million m3 of liquids a year, or the equivalent of 20 000 Olympic swimming pools. Approximately 11% of it goes back to the textile industry through the industrial water aqueduct. This requires that the water is treated above the legal requirements. At the same time the benefit is substantial – 4.5 million m3 remain in the natural water system. The rest of the water goes back into the surface water system, into a nearby creek. This system allows on one hand the industry to use only limited amounts of new water and on the other hand reinforces the necessary quality standards.

2.     A Tradition of recycling

But how can a medium-sized city put in place such a complex system and run it so well? The road to get here was definitely bumpy, but according to Valerio Barberis, City Councilor for the Municipality of Prato, one of the answers comes from the tradition of recycling pre-existing in the area:

One of the reasons why recycling water and so many large quantities of it came natural to the people of Prato is because they had recycling in their DNA. For as long as we worked in the textile industry, we have been recycling materials though a process called “cardato” in Italian or carding in English ”.

Carding is a centuries-old specific way of processing fibers. The yarns are produced using virgin fibers but also reusing fibers obtained from recycling old clothing or knits, and cuttings of new fabrics used in the garment industry. Thus unique yarns of fine wools are being created, sometimes exclusively from recycled fibers.

3.     Continuous effort for improvement

Water_managementOne of most striking characteristics of the GIDA plants and of its managers is the continuous effort for improvement. In 35 years of existence, GIDA grew from one to five plants, including an incineration plant and a photovoltaic system for its biggest plant. Some of their projects include the development of wastewater recycling through industrial aqueduct, the strengthening of a liquid waste disposal platform or the harnessing of the energy potential of sludge resulting from treatment.

Better Regulation at European and National level is another aspect on which the Municipality and GIDA keep working. As Valerio Barberis puts it, “our biggest challenge is a regulatory one. If we want to recycle more, to waste less, we need to push the boundaries of both the EU and the National legislation”.  This is it is the core objective of Prato within the Urban Agenda Partnership. The city is leading a pilot action for on better regulation to help make water legislation support the circular economy in cities.

And a concrete spillover effect from the collaboration within the Partnership, the city of Maribor is interested of transferring and adapting the GIDA water management model back home. The exchange between the two cities has already started.

More personally, what struck me the most during the visit in Prato was the city’s circular vision. It was not only applied to water and more widely to the local economy, but to which extent it became participative – from understanding the needs of the industry, to creating the right consciousness and awareness among the citizens and bringing the right knowledge and technology for the city.

If you want to learn more about this action and the Circular Economy plan or join the public feedback process, you can do it on the Urban Agenda Website.

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