Interview with David Newman: The Italian approach in reducing the use of plastic bags

David Newman, Secretary General of Assobioplastiche
David Newman, Secretary General of Assobioplastiche

Marine litter caused by plastic bags is threatening the oceans and causing already an ecological disaster . The European Commission is pushing for an ambitious resource efficiency agenda and is struggling to reduce landfills and enforce waste prevention across all Member States. Europe is a leader in the bioeconomy. What do all these facts have in common? More than we think. Italy demonstrated to the world that substituting traditional plastic bags with reusable and biodegradable and compostable ones can be, even at times of crisis, a solution to trigger separate collection rates, enhance waste prevention and unleash new investments in ground breaking technologies. We discussed the Italian case study and the recent reaction of UK against the Italian ban on plastic bags recently reported by several UK media with David Newman, Secretary General of Assobioplastiche, the Italian Bioplastic and Biodegradable and Compostable material Association.

Interview by Isabella Dalbelgio

(from Brussels)

Mr Newman, the UK recently issued a detailed opinion on the Italian ban on plastic bags, this in a time were efforts worldwide are focused on reducing the use of plastic bags, why is the UK against the Italian law?

The UK seems to not fully endorse the rationale and the philosophy and the motivations behind the Italian ban and is mainly judging from an internal market / trade perspective. Italy consumed one quarter of all Europe’s single-use plastic shopping bags before the 2011 ban. Moreover in Italy we  have a higher production of biodegradable waste  which is around 35/40% of the total municipal waste while in the UK this rate is only 25%. There is therefore a huge potential to valorise biowaste via separate collection and composting and in this the biodegradable and compostable bags allowed to be commercialised are a key ally as they enable us to obtain compost with a higher purity which can then be used as a useful fertiliser in agriculture. The ban also meant fewer Italians were using the old bags to wrap organic waste, making recycling more efficient and that is crucial for Italy which recycles five million tonnes of organic waste a year, much more than the UK because Italians cook more at home.
To be added that in  Italy we have a coastline of about 7600 km which are seeing an increased littering with plastic bags. Plastic are the most common type of plastic pollution in our seas and their impact on our marine ecosystem is proving to be disastrous.

Why did Italy decided for such a measure and did not decide to follow the example of other Member States like Ireland using taxes and fiscal measures?

For Italy, given the difficult financial situation we are facing, a fiscal measure would have not be the appropriate tool. Moreover these solutions have the tendency not only to end up in higher costs for the citizens but since they are not always effective, governments are forced to increase the taxes to levels that are so high in order to enable their implementation.
The idea of the Italian ban on plastic bags was to leverage and act on two fronts: unleash the strength and potential of a sector like green chemistry, which is one of the back bones of our industrial sectors and enhance the value of compost that can be produced by treating the organic fraction of municipal solid waste in composting sites.

What are the benefits the Italian law triggered in terms of waste management and prevention?

The effects can speak for themselves. Since the ban was in place plastic bags consumption in big retailers dropped by 50% and now consumers are incentivised to either use reusable bags or use the biodegradable and compostable ones which can then be used at home for collecting the biowaste. Moreover the purity of compost has increased, given that plastic bags are less present in the biowaste streams where the law has been applied and respected.

The EU in the broader debate of bioeconomy is promoting via dedicated strategies the use of bio-based products. Do you think that the Italian measures contributed to foster investments in italy on bio-based products and biorefineries as well?

Definitely. As a result bioplastics became a driver for spurring national growth triggering development of related bio-based products such as tyres additives, biolubricants and biochemicals building blocks. Confidence levels of potential in investors increased given the supportive legislative framework in place and for 2013 investments for about 1 billion euro are planned in the field of bio-based products in Italy, many of which are based on reconversion of abandoned and not operational plants into biorefineries with plans to re-employ local workers with few prospects otherwise.

The EU iniziated a debate on plastic waste via a green paper recently. Key questions address also plastic bags and biodegradable ones. What are in your opinion the key elements the EU should consider for a possible future revision of existing legislation to ensure the promotion of certified bio-based products such as biodegradable and compostable carrier bags?

Directive 94/62/EC on Packaging Waste allows biodegradable packaging waste to be recovered by means of organic recycling carried out in industrial composting conditions.  The intentions of the legislator are very clear when considering the complete structure of the Directive: to favour recycling. However, some of the definitions and provisions included in the Directive could be improved.
To this end, some content of the harmonised standard EN 13432, such as the biodegradation requirements should be incorporated in the legal body of the Directive in order to improve its legal certainty.  In addition, compliance with the essential requirements should be based on criteria set by mandatory legislation (the Directive) not voluntary measures. Harmonised standards are voluntary and this can clearly give rise to loopholes, and false claims in the market.

Are other member states and regions worldwide keen to follow the Italian approach in reducing the use of plastic bags? What is happening in Europe?

The Italian case study is followed closely some supporting Member States like France and Spain, which share the same vision of the approach undertook by the Italian Government.  On 4 February 2013 the French Minister for Economic Development, Arnaud Montebourg, outlined to the press the intention and willingness to follow the Italian model and promote the use of biodegradable and compostable bags given the potential in terms of growth that a measure similar to the Italian one would have in triggering the creation of local value chain dedicated to the production of bioplastics and added value products. Spain is working on a law similar to the Italian one but with a longer timeline in order to have a gradual phasing out of traditional plastics bags and enable at the same the growth of a local bioplastics sector which would  enable the much needed growth and job opportunities.

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