Recup Milan: From consumerism to the community

From July 6, 2018

Original article in Italian can be found here.

(Machine-translated version made with deepl)


[by Marta Facchini and Roberta Covelli]

Exchange, collaboration, conscious consumption: the project Recup, reducing food waste, recovers unsold food and social relations in Milan markets


From Viale Papiniano to Lambrate, Recup is active in various Milanese markets, an association of social promotion committed to combating food waste, through the recovery and redistribution of unsold food. During the closing phase of the market, the volunteers of the association, about thirty divided between the various areas, turn to traders, ask for the surplus as a gift and take it to a collection point, where anyone can take it: in this way, fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted are recovered. It is not only poor people who take advantage of the activity: it is not, the volunteers explain, a social assistance activity, but a collective and collaborative project, which recreates the sense of community, bringing dignity back to food and also to people. Through the collection and redistribution, in fact, the volunteers collaborate, activating a virtuous circle that involves both traders and users most in need. Not only that. In pursuing the objective of reducing food waste to a minimum, the volunteers of Recup simplify waste disposal activities, develop new methods to enhance the value of fruit and vegetables that are still edible and, above all, develop dialogue and social relations in the reality of the market: recovery is therefore not only food, but also relationships.

"Is there something to be recovered? Chiara asks as she passes through the stalls of Viale Papiniano, in the centre of Milan. It’s late afternoon, the market is about to end and the shopkeepers are dismantling their jobs: they clean the tables, close the umbrellas, take away the scales. Some people already load the materials into the car. “Have you sold everything or is there anything left for us?” continues Chiara. Mustafà, who is 20 years old and has been selling fruit and vegetables with a friend for three months, pulls out two crates: inside there are zucchini, tomatoes and asparagus. “Here, take them,” he says. "If they’re too heavy, I’ll take care of them. Chiara raises the boxes off the floor: “It’s better than going to the gym”, she jokes. Then Giulia comes to help her. They stand out from those who walk next to them because they are dressed in the same way: they wear a white short-sleeved T-shirt. Above, an inscription and a logo: Recup. They carry the cassettes to a point in the square, on the corner of Via Olona. There, two ladies collect everything, hold on to what can still be eaten and begin to distribute it. They fill the plastic bags, the shopping trolleys with canvas of those who seem to know them and wait in line. “These vegetables are also good boiled,” says a lady. "Put them in a pot with water and let them go.

The project

This has been the case in Piazzale Sant’Agostino for five years, every Saturday afternoon. It is the idea of the association Recup: to go to the market, talk to the sellers and recover what no one has bought during the day and that otherwise would end up in the trash. Then you separate the still good food from the rest, which you throw away. And anyone who needs it, or likes it, can take it and take it home.

“We realized that there were traders who bought in the marketplace large quantities of food to be able to get affordable prices but ended up wasting it. And maybe in the same market you could see people rummaging through trash bags,” says Virginia, a 31-year-old biologist, one of the founders of Recup and vice-president of the association. Today she is also working, she has just downloaded a box of onions and rocket. "At first it wasn’t easy, but we won the trust of the sellers. Now that they know us, it happens that they are the ones who bring us the unsold product. We even managed to recover 200 kg in one day. Over the years the project has grown: it started from Viale Papiniano and now covers ten markets in almost all of Milan. “We work with the municipality in policies to combat waste and we are about to open a new project with the Amsa”, explains Virginia. "We are able to facilitate the work of the garbage trucks. We collect everything in one place in the square and it’s easier for them to collect.

At Recup we work as volunteers and so far there are about thirty of them: high school students, university students, scouts and even pensioners participate. We organize ourselves in groups: each market is followed by a nucleus of people and has a contact person. And it’s not uncommon for someone who has taken something to help to come back. Like Claudio, who met the boys of the association in the worst years of the economic crisis, when he had lost his carpenter’s job and slept in the car. He couldn’t do the shopping and with Recup he would get something to eat. Now that the situation has changed, he has found a home and a job, he has returned to help: “I do not like to come just to take. Then I take a walk through the market stalls and I take the boxes,” he explains. "Today I found the vegetables my partner likes. I’ll surprise her: I’ll cook.

Maria, on the other hand, is behind a counter and cleans the asparagus. He keeps a bunch of them for himself but spends the afternoon filling the envelopes of those who approach him. It seems like an act of healing to him. He has been with Recup since the beginning and now knows almost all the people in front of him: “not only those who live in the area come. That lady lives far away, she doesn’t live here. And yet she arrives on time because this has now become a fixed date,” he says.

Beyond numbers, relationships

At the Lambrate market, small coloured cans are placed on a table. They contain colours created by boiling vegetables and blending them: green from herbs and spinach, red from onion peels and beets. “We have started to organize workshops in schools. We teach how to work with waste materials,” says Federica, who attended the Academy of Fine Arts and is the group’s creative director. She met Recup when she was twenty-two years old and now she is in charge of maintaining relations with schools. “It’s an enriching experience because it’s not welfare. It’s not one-way: it’s based on the reciprocity of relationships,” she says. Chiara also thinks so, as she met the association by chance and then came back together with her husband to join as a volunteer. “We recover relationships and we end up getting to know each other because we talk and look into each other’s eyes,” she says. "It’s not just a question of figures.

Figures that, according to the latest surveys, are improving. According to data from the Reduce project - coordinated by the University of Bologna, promoted by the Ministry of the Environment in collaboration with the Zero Waste campaign and presented on the occasion of the fifth National Day for the Prevention of Food Waste - every year the average family throws away 84.9 kilograms of food and, at national level, the bill rises to 2.2 million tons. Almost a pound and a half a day, each. Yet a decrease, given that in 2016 it was estimated a waste of 145 kg per household and 63 kg per person.

The circle that comes to an end

“One of the first times I went around the counters, they gave me twenty cases of peppers. It was Papiniano’s square,” says Rebecca. Recup was born from an idea of hers, arrived when she was twenty-five years old and after the Erasmus in Lille. In France she went shopping at the market and saw how the associations worked with waste materials. Back in Milan, and after a degree in Geography, she decided to do the same in the city. That’s how she met Virginia and Federica. At the base, an idea shared by all: “We are not a charity”, she explains. “We recover in respect of food and others. Whoever takes it, must not take away more than what they would use or there would be waste even in that case”.

Then other people arrived and the circle widened. “We thought of new projects: jams, the creation of colors, workshops at school,” she continues. "And we also have new tools: before everything was loaded by hand and now, thanks to a call from the municipality, Recup has obtained a cargobike to carry the weights.

Returning to the market also meant returning to the centre of a community. Because in line to buy a bunch of vegetables you talk, you know each other. “Many people ask me to go to supermarkets or restaurants as well. But it’s the local markets that allow you to rediscover the care for the other”. In the neighborhood the dialogue is reconstructed and the market becomes a point of aggregation and opening. A social square. “Recup wants to reduce waste to a minimum, trying to reach zero. And to give food back its social and meeting value. It is a circle that closes”.

Translated with DeepL Translate: The world's most accurate translator