Italy has not equipped itself to recycle the plastic that China no longer wants

Italy has not equipped itself to recycle the plastic that China no longer wants

There is a lack of companies and skills to build a circular economy from waste, after the Beijing blockade launched in 2018

(photo: from the documentary Plastic China) Until a few years ago, it was China that welcomed the plastic of world to recover it. Il Dragone has been taking on the waste of the West for decades, building around it an economy, in many cases industrial, sometimes made up of small and precarious artisan workshops, as told by the award-winning documentary Plastic China.

Things have partially changed in January 2018. After an announcement that took place a few months earlier, and with a sudden decision that left many unsettled, Beijing launched the National Sword policy banning the import of 24 types of solid materials, in addition to setting strict limits on the degree of contamination of others: stop to undifferentiated garbage, for example, but also to paper contaminated with fats. The new course, according to the government, is imposed by environmental reasons, and the protests of the members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been of little use.

This sudden change of course has obviously generated an impact on a slice of the economy within the country, forced to reinvent itself. But it has also imposed on Western states to take over overnight management of billions of tons of materials that until recently were simply shipped by ship to the East. Other states, such as Malaysia, have tried to accommodate the garbage from the more industrialized countries: of course, it was not enough to replace Chinese volumes.

European and American politicians have not yet decided how much this U-turn is a problem or can be considered an opportunity. Recycling is undoubtedly an interesting sector for economies that are initiating a transition towards sustainability. The employment implications should not be underestimated either. But, the operators complain, if for the processing of some materials they even lack the skills, for others there is a lack of clear rules.

Beijing's waste

The most significant impact of the China ban has been in the world of plastics. “From 1990 to 2013, Beijing went from 1 to 55 million tons of imported plastic waste arriving from all over the world. But from 2017 to 2019, it dropped to 8, and is progressively moving towards zero ", explains to Wired Giuseppe Piardi, president of Assoraee, the association of circular economy companies that process waste from electrical and electronic equipment.

Recovering plastic is not easy: it is estimated that only 9% of that in circulation globally is recycled. Different production methods require diversified processes; for example, one that contains brominated flame retardants cannot be put back on the market. The fraction that cannot be recycled ends up in landfills or burned in incinerators. Or dispersed in the sea, where it breaks down into microparticles that enter the food chain, and in the bowels of fish and humans.

"Italy and Europe are far behind in this regard" - continues Piardi, pointing out the gap - " so much so that we had to turn to China to learn tricks and technologies. In our continent, companies able to carry out this type of processing were counted on the fingertips of one hand: today the picture has begun to evolve, and there are several realities that are committed to expanding recovery, especially of packaging ".

The issue of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), an extremely interesting niche from a circular economy perspective. From the video recorder to the mobile phone to the modem, it is estimated that each device contains a recyclable share of almost 90%. With the correct treatment, many materials can return to the market in the form of "secondary raw materials". Not only plastic: there are copper, iron, aluminum, but also precious metals and minerals of various kinds.

The waste cycle

In Italy, says Piardi, a recovery industry it has existed for decades, but is limited to some components, mostly metals: copper, aluminum, steel. Everything else, he admits, has yet to be created.

But what happens when we throw away a television or a tire? Trying to reconstruct it allows us to understand. The first step is the collection, that is, the delivery of the waste to one of the municipal centers. Cdcraee is the body that brings them together. Here, explains Fabrizio Longoni, general manager of the institution, is the first bottleneck. " The plastic? From our point of view, the blockade of China is an opportunity and not a problem "- the manager tries to overturn the question -" Rather, it is the fact that it manifested itself in a sudden manner that generates the knot of how to deal with it ".

Recycling comes later, and only if collection works. But in many municipalities, Longoni observes, there are even no ecological platforms. "In Italy we are able to manage any quantity" - he explains - "but, if in Sweden you can ask a citizen to travel 40 kilometers to dispose of waste in consideration of the territorial conformation of the country and the population density, it is unthinkable for us force the citizen to drive for an hour. Thus, even the most virtuous do not collaborate, if they are not put in the conditions to do so ". Is the situation homogeneous along the Peninsula? "It is useless to deny it, some regions are further behind than others", concludes Longoni.

Recycling and the end of waste

Once the material has been recovered and the processing has started, the problem becomes the so-called end of waste, Anglicism to indicate the point at which the waste acquires the status of secondary raw material and can, therefore, be reused. This threshold is not arbitrary, but must be indicated by law. “But you sail on sight, and you sail badly. Every time you interface with bureaucracy you get lost in a thousand streams ”, Piardi continues. “The Italian legislation exists, but, in my opinion, it is cumbersome. And even international standards lack a structured approach that makes it clear to everyone what to do ". Without harmonic criteria, the processed materials cannot be brought to the international market to be sold. The process comes to a halt again, one step away from its conclusion.

There are some virtuous examples of collaboration with the public sector. “In Treviso there is an Arpa observatory on waste that works very well, directed by doctor Lorena Franz. It is a state-of-the-art structure with which we work perhaps even more than public bodies do ", says Piardi. But it is an exception, more than the rule. The problem of waste management, the dark side of well-being, remains a taboo subject for politics, which has so far been niche.

The market

Once recovered and reached the required level of purity by the regulations on the end of waste (when they exist), secondary raw materials are placed on the market: for steel it is well structured also in Italy, and it is the recovery plants themselves that define the sale price with buyers through negotiation direct, as also happens for several other materials. For some types, the reference is, instead, the Lme (London Metal Exchange) price list.

Does the market work? "The equipment manufacturers, today called to 'so-called extended responsibility', do not shy away" - concludes Longoni. “On the contrary: if they could have part of the materials used back, they could benefit from them in the production cycles”. But making reuse affordable is a long way to go, and still in the early stages. Much remains to be done. The economic situation has also started: with the drop in the price of oil due to the coronavirus, the price of virgin plastic has also fallen.

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