“To pass laws that can make a difference means overcoming the braking action of those who defend and feed the advantageous position, put into practice the good industry and multiply virtuous cases there are in our country. Much of the Italian industry has invested and is investing in the development of new products and “green” technologies, and now considers sustainability as an opportunity rather than a constraint”. Catia Bastioli talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview with the Chief Executive Officer of Novamont, considered as the beacon of Italian bioeconomy, we talk about bioeconomy, circular economy and climate change. A few days before the 4th EU Bioeconomy Stakeholders’ Conference in Utrecht, Bastioli gives us her vision to fully realize in Italy and Europe the new economy based on biological resources, able to create wealth and jobs, starting from the local areas.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Dr. Bastioli, in December the COP21 in Paris ended with an agreement described by many as a historic achievement. How can this agreement boost the European bioeconomy?
I agree that it has been reached a historic agreement: it is the first time that an agreement on climate involves actively 195 countries, with 186 who have already committed to an emissions cut. Obviously we can’t say that the problem has been solved, but important signals were launched: it was in fact recognized that the linear production-distribution-consumption system powered by the use of massive amounts of fossil fuels has produced growing external costs, challenging targets have been identified and countries have shown to march in a compact way, although with clear differentiations on previous responsibilities. Between the goal to reach and the instruments adopted, to date very vague, there is still a huge distance, but I think the impetus created by this conference will accelerate the penetration of the green economy and the bioeconomy in particular. That is, the possibility of rewriting the paradigms that have dominated economic systems, and therefore our lifestyles, in the last century, becomes practical.
Meanwhile, in terms of bioeconomy, Italy is the only major European country without its own national strategy and seemingly without a vision. Regions are also lagging. How this affects the competitiveness of Italian industry?
We need a coherent overall framework and a clear strategy at a national level to support the competitiveness of our industry and make the necessary cultural leap that, to be such, must invest the entire society. The hope is that the Green Act could move in this direction. But paradoxically, our country has already, in some ways, a bioeconomy model and is ready in terms of technology. Value chains like that of biochemicals and bioplastics, conceived as solutions that can transform environmental problems, such as organic waste, in resources, show that Italy is widely able to create highly innovative and systemic models, which are patterns in terms of competitiveness and international consensus. At international level, Italy has the best standards of separate collection and quality of organic wastes, with the city of Milan that sets an example worldwide. It has conceived the concept of biorefinery integrated in the local area, also considered with interest by the European Commission, with long chains up to agriculture. And different regions are now actually trying to put into practice a bioeconomy model intended as territorial regeneration.
The Renzi government announced the introduction of a Green Act, but – until today – its content is a bit mysterious. From your point of view, why is it so complicated to introduce “green acts” in our country? And how could this new law encourage the development of Italian bioeconomy?
To pass laws that can make a difference means overcoming the braking action of those who defend and feed the advantageous position, put into practice the good industry and multiply virtuous cases there are in our country. Much of the Italian industry has invested and is investing in the development of new products and “green” technologies, and now considers sustainability as an opportunity rather than a constraint. My hope is that the Green Act could incorporate the concept of circular economy, promoting the initiatives that start from the local areas and the European concept of “Sustainable Regions”, and focusing on the many innovations available and under development, the efficient use of local resources, environmental sustainability and a new approach to the production and consumption: inclusive and able to reindustrialize areas in crisis without generating waste, whether they are of matter, energy or persons. To be sure that the virtuous cases become system, it is necessary that the winning models in our country are promoted and also replicated in less virtuous areas, in order to reduce the differences of “speed” existing between different areas and accelerate development. Only then we can really make Italy both an engine and a demonstrator of a new paradigm.
In Brussels, there is a lot of debate regarding the need to introduce in Europe a Green Public Procurement system to support the demand for bio-based products, as well as made in the United States with the Biopreferred program. Do you think it is possible in Italy?
It is an important aspect, which can give a very strong boost to innovation and to the bioeconomy in general. But to achieve the desired effect it is necessary to work at the same time on the definition and application of clear and rigorous standards to qualify the bio-based products, referring to minimum and systemic environmental criteria.
The economic paradigm in vogue today is that of circular economy. What is your opinion about the package presented by the European Commission last December?
Surely the fact that the European Commission has decided to consider the issue of circular economy is a very positive sign and a success of our country, who has spent a lot of energy in this sense. We are on the right track, even though in my opinion there is room for improvement to make some measures more binding and effective, for example about the compulsory nature of the separate collection of organic waste. A further step could also be to establish greater synergy between the concept of circularity and that of bioeconomy, which – when declined as a territorial regeneration – becomes circular “by nature”, because it uses renewable raw materials and contributes to the reduction of CO2 emissions, providing solutions to social and environmental challenges.
An important role in supporting the bioeconomy is played by public perception, which is often more interested in the cost of a product rather than in its ecological footprint. How is it possible to reconcile economy and ecology? What is the actual regeneration potential of the territory and the creation of jobs in the bioeconomy in Italy?
The transition of production systems, consumption and lifestyle is a cultural fact, even more that economic, which requires a great change of mentality in all of us. I believe that today public opinion is much more aware than in the past. Opinion polls in fact show us that Europeans are ready for a cultural change, and that the financial crisis did not reduce their focus on environmental issues, but it made them even more convinced that we need action at all levels to protect the environment and also the local economy. Let us take, for example, the huge problem of the drying of the olive trees in Apulia, where we talk about Xylella but also about highly desertified land, when we continue to consider as waste the valuable organic waste that ends up in landfills. Culture is created in the field, through territorial projects based on the collaboration between the parties and able to give a tangible response to social, environmental and scarcity of the planet’s resources challenges. In Italy there are already skills and technologies to enable territorial regeneration projects with great potential in terms of conversion of no longer competitive or abandoned industrial sites in integrated biorefineries, the use of marginal and polluted land, the creation of new sectors, new products and new jobs. It is estimated that 1,000 tons of bioplastics are able to generate 60 jobs throughout the value chain, from agriculture to organic waste.