The Italian mode: How Italy leads the way in Europe in separate waste collection systems

Written by: RWW | Published:

In Italy, food waste recycling is fashionable. David Burrows reports from Milan where a new collection system has resulted in some impressive take-up figures and low contamination rates.

Italy hasn’t got the best reputation when it comes to waste. It is home to the infamous ‘triangle of death’, an area around Naples where the Mafia has reportedly dumped 10 million tonnes of toxic and household waste over the past two decades.

The European Commission also estimates that waste is treated and disposed of unlawfully in 100 of the country’s 250 official waste management sites. And there is the high profile case of Manlio Cerroni, the businessman currently being prosecuted for a string of charges relating to his global waste empire, including the Malagrotta, one of Europe’s largest landfill sites.

This is all a long way from Italy’s other big industries and the style associated with its biggest brands such as Ferrari, Lavazza and Versace. But last week the job of repairing reputations was in full swing.

The ‘Milan Recycle City’ conference was a chance to show what Italy can do, is doing and intends to do to improve its waste services. This is a city that collects “more than twice as much organic waste” as any other in Europe and recycles half its household waste.

Indeed, the separate collection system for food waste is attracting attention from around the world and speakers from Sweden, Germany, Slovenia and the US lined up to approve the new scheme as a model in best practice for other major cities.

Milan’s programme was launched back in November 2012 and is being rolled out in four stages across the city; the last of these takes place this month.

Anaerobic digestion

It involves separate collection of food waste at the kerbside with the onus on residents to sort their leftovers into small kitchen caddies lined with biodegradable bags. The waste is then trucked to a huge facility just outside Milan where it is fed into anaerobic digesters to produce energy and compost.

The Montello site is certainly an impressive one; boasting eight AD siloes each standing 22 metres tall.

Two more are planned for next year as the company looks at creating fuel for its vehicles and to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Some 300,000 tonnes of organic waste arrives here every year already, generating a whopping 9MW of energy. Almost all of that is used to power the plastic reprocessing plant on the other side of the 35-hectare site.

The relationship between plastic and organic waste was in fact a key focus of the Milan event. Single use plastic bags have been banned in Italy since 2011, with supermarkets now only supposed to sell biodegradable bags. The fact that these are charged at 10 Euro cents each has, according to recent surveys, not been a burden to residents.

ISPO Ricerche, the respected polling and research company, revealed at the conference that 74% don’t mind buying bags, while 79% said that remembering to buy extra bags isn’t a hassle. Current contamination levels appear to back this up - levels have been kept below 5% and average about 4.27%. It’s impressive.

Yet of that contamination, about half is plastic bags, with residents using them instead of the biodegradable ones.

Consumers can still often get plastic bags at smaller retailers, despite the ban, and their presence in the food waste is rising, according to one manufacturer.

Transition period

Novamont, which produces the Mater-Bi biodegradable plastic used to produce some bags, wants to see the law enforced more rigorously. Its separate collection marketing manager, Christian Garaffa, explains how almost 28% of the bags in use are still plastic.

“A blanket application of the national legislation on shopping bags would make it possible to greatly increase quality of the material collected,” he says, though he admitted to RWW that the country was in a “transition period” due to the talks going on at EU level. New regulations are being put in place in a bid to cut bag use by 80%, with Member States able to introduce charges and mandatory reduction targets.

The legislation could also make it possible for governments to introduce an outright ban on plastic bags, but this could contravene single market rules and the packaging and packaging waste directive.

Italy’s ban is already under scrutiny so the government is waiting to see what the outcome of the European discussions is before strengthening its own policy.

In Milan there are fines for contaminating the food waste of €50; these come in six months after any collection round starts.

Paula Petrone, general manager at AMSA, the public waste management company that’s responsible for Milan’s waste, said that residents don’t get a second chance after that.

As a result “our separate collection is a quality collection,” she explains.

Food waste collection

There is also evidence to suggest that the food waste collection is having a knock-on effect on other materials. More data from ISPO suggested that 60% of those who have the food waste service now take more care and interest in recycling generally. “We hope they are telling the truth,” says ISPO scientific director Renato Mannheimer. Residents are reportedly more than happy with how things are going: 61% are in favour of recycling their food (in Italy generally the figure is actually higher, at 71%), while over three quarters say they recycle ‘every day’.

Indeed for the Milanese, separating out their food waste into a small, aerated kitchen caddy is not a burden - 82% said they don’t mind putting leftover food in a specific bin.

AMSA’s Petrone said that a lot of effort, research and analysis went into the scheme to ensure that it was right for residents.

Having tried and failed to launch a scheme twice before, it wasn’t just a case of third time lucky.

“We’d got to a point of ‘no growth’ in our recycling rates and so decided to introduce a food waste [collection]. The first step was to use see through bags to show what was ‘hidden’ in the [residual waste]. There was a long period of studying and collection of data [and then] a strong communication campaign [to launch it]. We’ve learnt from our mistakes,” she explains.

But can the rest of Italy and, indeed, Europe learn from the Italian model?

By the end of the year, AMSA says it expects to be collecting 90kg of food waste per person per year, which dwarfs the likes of Vienna (45kg) or Munich (31kg) and even some of the smaller cities ahead of the game like Ljubljana in Slovenia (60kg).

This doesn’t appear to be a case of style over substance either - Milan is just one of a number of municipalities in Italy showing that this is a country that can manage its waste.

In an interview published recently in Rome’s daily newspaper, Il Tempo, Cerroni brushed off the accusations being levied at him, claiming that “when it comes to waste management, I am considered universally the best in the world”.

Many would question that statement, but his style of waste management might be set for the scrapheap as Italy tries to reinvent itself as the top food waste recycler in Europe, if not the world.

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