There is no doubt that consumerism has pervaded (with greater or lesser intensity depending on the economic circumstances of the moment) the last 40 years of the last century and continues into the current one.
We have more and more things and we feel the need to buy new ones and, since the1800s’ industrial revolution, we arrived today at Industry 4.0 and we became increasingly good at producing objects with a ‘programmed’ life: they have to break after a well-defined period of time (household appliances, cars, etc.) or they must evolve into their characteristic functions in order to be obsolete after a few years (smart TV, mobile phones, computers, hi-fi, etc.).
Once replaced by new ones, the disused ones must therefore be disposed of, but most of the materials with which they are built take years to be “absorbed” by the environment if they are abandoned there; the same also applies to everyday objects that have become “disposable” for many of us. Therefore, we need to better manage the waste that we all produce and protect the environment in which we live by putting forward far-sighted policies that are aimed at both recovery and reuse and at reducing waste. But before drawing the conclusions, let’s take a step back, analyzing the aspects that will prove decisive for the success of the environmental protection project.
How does Italy deal with this issue?
Waste recycling represents a weapon with enormous potential to pursue the objectives of a clean environment and sustainable growth. Surprisingly, Italy is at the forefront of Europe in the recycling sector, used plastics processing machinery or with the research centres of Novara and Ferrara on plastics.
Today Italy is the State that recycles the most among the top 5 industrialized countries of the European Union: more than France, more than Germany, much more than the EU average which is just 37%. The Belpaese recycles as much as 76.9% of its waste, reveals Eurostat, the statistical office of the Union. The French cousins only 54%, the Germans (always first in the class) only 43%. The British (with one foot already outside the EU) stop at 44%. The European average is just 37%, less than half of the Italian one.
In absolute terms, Germany recycles more garbage than we do: 72.4 million tons, against the 56.4 of our country; however, even in terms of quantity, Italy is in second place in the EU.
The most significant flows for Italy are represented by traditional recyclable waste (paper, plastic, glass, metals, wood, textiles): 26 million tons; followed by mixed waste selected for selection (14 million), organic and green waste (6 million) and chemical waste (1.7 million). Italy is also the second European country, after Germany, in terms of turnover and employees in the preparation for recycling sector.
But why this primacy? The Ministry of the Environment gives some explanations. First, the countries of Northern Europe, which have a very advanced separate collection, burn half of the garbage in the waste-to-energy plants to produce energy and this considerably lowers the percentage of recycled waste.
Secondly, the European recycling average is low also due to the countries of the east where, in some cases, up to 80% of waste ends up in landfills.
Finally, we are moving towards an ambitious re-launch of waste management policies, which aims at a greater circularity of resources. The new and more challenging targets proposed by the Circular Economy Package and the simultaneous adoption of uniform methods for calculating the amount of waste actually recycled will certainly have a strong impact on the recycling market, but also on the country as a whole.
From an economic point of view, new investment projects will be needed, with positive effects also in terms of employment, and from an environmental point of view these processes will contribute to the reduction of climate-changing gas emissions and to the containment of environmental impacts deriving from the extraction of materials first virgins. A further, desirable, positive effect will be to help stabilize the demand and prices of recycled materials by providing greater certainty to investors.
We are therefore faced with a highly specialized industrial fabric, which has developed following the evolution of the rules, and the progressive complexity of the constitutive structure of products and packaging increasingly difficult to separate and recycle.
Overall in Italy there are over 10,500 companies that, regardless of their economic sector, carry out waste management activities in order to recover or dispose of them.
From analyzes conducted by Ecocerved, a consortium company of the Italian Chamber of Commerce system, on the world of material recovery, it emerges that the total annual turnover of the system can be estimated at around 39 billion euros and the added value produced by the recycling industry amounts in 2015 to 12.6 billion of euros, equivalent to about 1% of Italian GDP.
However, despite the overall system generating value, some sectors must be carefully observed above all from an economic point of view: this is the case of CONAI, the National Packaging Consortium, which, in its recent (November 2017) Specific Plan for Prevention and Management of Packaging and packaging waste for the year 2018, foresees at the end of the year a total revenue of 874 million euros against a total cost of 931 million euros generating a deficit of 59 million euros; in 2018, as also in 2017, the growth in revenues will not entirely cover the expected increase in collection and start-up costs for the waste managed and therefore, to meet this negative result, it will be necessary to draw on the reserves accrued in the years of previous years which will reach around 138 million euros at the end of 2018.
Despite the fact that the Italians collect and there is a consolidated and active recycling industry, in Italy (and in Europe) the downstream market is very weak: regenerated products do not like much. Until a few months ago the outburst was mainly China, to which waste paper, glass, plastics and other materials ready to be reused were exported.
However, after years of excessive pollution, the Asian country is implementing and collecting and recycling techniques and it begins to no longer need Europe’s waste materials, so it no longer requires such materials and throws into panic the Italian industry of regeneration.
The critical situation is denounced by major national players such as Corepla, the first national consortium for the recovery of plastics, or Unirima, the association of the major paper regeneration companies adhering to the Confindustria Cisambiente, according to which Europe risks filling up of used materials to which it cannot find a destination.
A striking case is that of the United Kingdom which collects a great deal of waste paper, but which, unlike Italy, has a meager capacity to absorb it and deviates the materials to be recycled to Germany; Germany in turn invades Italy with materials or with recycled finished products and the consequences are that the values collapse, the market becomes saturated and the warehouses are filled.
In some cases, there is no way of freeing up the squares filled with mountains of carefully selected quality residues that become easy prey to fires. Moreover, unfortunately, in Italy, due to local oppositions, the most appropriate outlet in Northern Europe is rare, that is the use of selected materials as high-quality fuel for cement plants and district heating plants instead of fuels heavy of oil origin.
According to Corepla it becomes a priority to strengthen research and development to create the final market for products based on recycled materials and it is very important that the so-called green procurement, ie ecological procurement, take off; even if they would be forced by law, public administrations are struggling to put in the specifications of supply contracts the obligation of recycled material.