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Italy’s recycling industry is number one in the continent, says latest report

by Jacopo Giliberto

Surprise. Italy, the nation with the most robust recycling industry in Europe, imports 5.9 million tons of refuse a year as raw material (especially metals used by steel mills) to recycle. Meanwhile, it pays to export 450,000 tons of garbage (non-recyclable, real trash, like the kind that Naples can’t seem to get rid of) to burn as high-priced combustibles in power plants that heat the homes of the Germans and the Dutch.

The data come from the latest edition of “An Italy That Recycles,” a report issued by Fise Unire (a Confindustria association of waste management companies) and the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

The report collects 2014 data on the entire recycling sector, well beyond separating paper and plastic in people’s houses, from the industries that produce waste that can be re-cycled, to those that use it as a raw material.
And it reveals that all sectors of the business are growing.

Obviously, the recycling of packaging is up, 7,800 tons including industrial product. But recycling of wool and used clothing is growing as well (up 12% despite stiff competition in this rather obscure sub-sector). So is recycling of wood (mostly used for chip-board panelling in furniture), scrap metal, used tires (129,000 tons thanks to recovery consortiums like Ecopneus), and used electronic appliances and electronics that are a source of copper and other highly-valued material (up 3%).

Italy has an old and highly consolidated recycling industry, born centuries ago (if not thousands of years ago with the Etruscan iron and steel industry), and many other nations send their waste to be recycled in Italy.

Imported refuse totaled 5.9 million tons in 2014, in large part made up of scrap metal destined for mills in Lombardy and Friuli, while 3.8 million tons were exported, mainly paper and plastic.

For packaging materials, the rate of paper recycling is very high (80%). Also for steel (74%), aluminum (74%) and glass (70%).

“Italian recycling was able to resist the prolonged recession and remain competitive,” said Anselmo Calo, chairman of Unire. “But it’s important to discourage waste disposal in landfills, to improve the quality of the materials gathered, and to streamline and simplify the bureaucratic context,” he said.

Calo notes that Europe has just passed a package of norms on the so-called circular economy, which has been hard to apply in Italy due to “unclear and conflicting elements in various laws.”

Edo Ronchi, the chairman of the Foundation for Sustainable Development, adds that when he was Environment Minister he developed legislation on recycling that “with the changes proposed by the European Commissions on all waste-related directives, and given the new and more challenging goals for recycling through 2025 and 2030, it will still be necessary to get the zones that are still lagging behind up to speed, to increase and improve the collection of ’differentiated’ wasted and continue to strengthen the industrialization and innovation of the sector.”