Bioplastics: the Italian holistic approach to bioeconomy

EU ParliamentBrussels spoke Italian last Wednesday. On the eve of the official presentation of the “Green paper on plastic waste” by the European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik, Kyoto Club presented on 6 March the European Parliament with “Bioplastics: A case study of Bioeconomy in Italy. A smart chemistry for a smarter life in a smarter planet”, a book – edited by Walter Ganapini – on the Italian experience of regulating the distribution of disposable plastic bags, in order to reduce environmental pollution.

The book presents the “Italian case” of bioeconomy, whose roots lie in the evolution of research and innovation in the biodegradable bioplastics sector on the one hand, and the virtuous development of the quality compost industry and separated municipal waste collection on the other. The connections between these two developments over the years have set in motion a whole series of virtuous modes of action and collaboration initiatives between various stakeholders (enterprises, institutions, research bodies, trade associations, consultancy companies and regional authorities) generating a connective tissue that is ideal to promote a change in the development model, putting the efficient use of resources at the centre.

The law, introduced on 1 January 2011, provided that the only disposable shopping bags that could be marketed would be biodegradable and compostable in accordance with standard CEN 13432 and that bags made of traditional plastic had to meet criteria of durability and reusability with different thicknesses, depending on the type and end use.

The new regulations, conceived primarily to tackle the serious problem of waste and landfill management in compliance with European directives, have already provided a number of benefits for the environment: an overall decrease in the consumption of disposable bags in supermarkets of around 50%, with the ensuing raising of public awareness (over 90% of Italian citizens consider the law to be a step forward in safeguarding the environment, source ISPO 2012); the 20.7% reduction in waste sent to landfills with resulting annual savings of around 5.1 million euro; a 29% cut in CO2 emissions and a 39% reduction in oil used. In addition, around 50% of the bags used for the collection of organic waste are biodegradable and compostable shopping bags and provide an opportunity to extend separated collection of organic waste to municipalities that have not yet started it, or generating savings for those virtuous communities that have already been implementing it for years.

And that is not all. This law has enabled Italy to engage in development in the field of biodegradable and compostable bioplastics in Italy and in Europe, contributing to their leap in scale, to the construction of integrated industries and to the development of bio-based products. This is known as the “Bioeconomy”, that is, an economy which – in line with EU guidelines – uses natural resources in a sustainable and intelligent way and develops products from renewable sources to encourage growth and employment, at the same time reducing the dependency on fossil resources.

The adoption by Italian legislators of far-sighted “market pull” measures – to boost the production and use of biodegradable products from renewable raw materials in niche markets that are particularly critical from the environmental point of view – has given rise to significant investments in innovative technologies. It has also led to the creation of a green chemical industry, where abandoned industrial sites are redeveloped into third generation biorefineries and agriculture, chemistry and industry are integrated, with positive effects for society as a whole in economic, employment and waste reduction terms as well as for the introduction of sustainability criteria in the consumption choices of the people.

The meeting was opened by Amalia Sartori, Chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament and featured, among others, presentations by Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment (video), Corrado Clini, Italian Minister for the Environment, Pierre Angot, Deputy Director of the “Industrie de la santé, de la chimie et des nouveaux matériaux” division at the French Ministry of Economic Development, Maraid McGuinness, member of the European Parliament, and Marco Peronaci, Italian Ambassador to the EU. Corrado Clini commenting on the state of play in Italy stressed how the development of bioplastics is one of the building blocks of the national strategy under development in Italy aimed to achieve a low carbon economy. Commenting on the case study McGuinness said “this case study is what we need at EU level and we need to learn from Italy”. The need of an holistic approach to bioeconomy and market pull measures was also one key element stressed by all participants.

A technical roundtable , chaired by Kyoto Club president Catia Bastioli, was attended by Francesco Ferrante, a former member of the Italian Senate, Daniele Ferrari, Ceo of Versalis-Eni and chairman of Matrica, Christophe Rupp-Dahlem, president of Association Chimie du Végétal, Maura Latini, Vice President of Coop Italia, David Newman, president of the International Solid Waste Association, Walter Ganapini, honorary member of the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency, and Francesco Bertolini, professor at Bocconi University. All participants debated on the practical effects triggered by the measures showing concretely how through this measure it was possible to achieve all the main effects showcased in the book and gave perspectives of potential replication in other members states such as France.
“As demonstrated by data summarised in the book – said Catia Bastioli – the Italian legislation on plastic bags produced by bodies of national renown with the broadest range of interests is acting as a catalyst for change, promoting a process of incremental innovation, under the banner heading of efficient use of resources. Opportunities are being provided to test and assess the effective repercussions on the local area, creating new system economy competences and bridges between otherwise divergent sectors: between chemistry, agriculture, biotechnology, the petrochemical industry, the processing industry, the waste industry, public authorities, research centres, associations, compulsory and voluntary consortia, environmentalist forces and the voluntary work sector. These developments may allow us to tackle the economic crisis with greater determination, and the phenomenon of the deindustrialisation of national chemical sites due to the loss of competitiveness of the oil commodities sector in Europe. It may also provide an answer to the problem of the desertification of some areas in Italy, through industries connected to biorefineries integrated in the local area, with due respect for local biodiversity and the greater availability of quality compost”.

Isabella Dalbelgio

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