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The country of recycled paper

Italy is leader in the circular economy for paper, with the South at the top.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
04 August 2020
6 min read
byMaria Pia Rossignaud
04 August 2020
6 min read

Italy is getting more and more eco-friendly. It’s already reached the EU’s target for recycling cardboard and paper, set for 2025. The 25th annual report from Comieco (National Consortium for the Recovery and Recycling of Cellulose-based Packaging) proves Italy has been ahead of the game, having recycled 81% of this kind of waste in 2019.

But the race to recycle doesn’t end there – by 2030 the Italians should reach a rate of 85%. It all hangs on how major urban centres do, beginning with Rome and those in the South, the scene of big news. The data for 2020 show the capital still facing problems with sorting rubbish, but the South of Italy doing pretty well at recycling. According to Minister of the Environment Sergio Costa, the problem is partly that there aren’t enough working plants. “Seven paper mills in the South isn’t very many,” is the minister's statement (ANSA news). The minister points to the , which envisages opening new sites and spur on the regions, which have just got hold of the skills to assess their environmental impact, to seize this opportunity for all it’s worth. His comments are echoed by Comieco’s president, Amelio Cecchini, who explains: “with these plants we’ll create jobs and wealth and break even on payments because rather than import paper, we’ll be using our own.” EU’s Recovery Plan, which envisages opening new sites and spur on the regions, which have just got hold of the skills to assess their environmental impact, to seize this opportunity for all it’s worth. His comments are echoed by Comieco’s president, Amelio Cecchini, who explains: “with these plants we’ll create jobs and wealth and break even on payments because rather than import paper, we’ll be using our own.”

The rise of the South

Let’s return to the statistics. Collection of cardboard and paper went up by 3% in 2019 to a total of 3.5 million tonnes. That means that the average Italian collected about 1 kg more material than in 2018. That translates into 57.5 kg per person per year, more than triple the figure for 1998. And the quality of sorted paper waste from households has improved too, with less material in there that shouldn’t be.

Thanks for this growth must go above all to the South, which, collecting a grand total of 874,000 tonnes of rubbish, overtook Central Italy (with 841,000 tonnes, 2.8% more than in 2018) for the first time, and closed the gap with the North, which is still ahead; up there they managed to collect 1.8 million tonnes (0.6% more than last year). Within the North, Lombardy is ahead with about 568,000 tonnes, but Emilia-Romagna tops the rankings for average collection per head, att 85.2 kg. Sicily is showing the highest growth, having taken a giant leap of 15.9%.

It’s followed in the South by Molise and Calabria, with increases of 12.5% and 9.3% respectively. In Central Italy they collected 841,000 tonnes of cardboard and paper, an increase of 2.8% on 2018, or 69 kg per head. Tuscany led the charge with an increase of 4.4%.

Comieco and the Italian solidity

In the last 25 years, Comieco’s reports have given us a detailed picture of Italians’ habits, which with the passing of time have becoming more inclined to sorting rubbish. The recycling chain never stopped, not even in the depths of the lockdown. It’s a silver lining that brings so many benefits. It’s one of those cases where Italy has got its house in order and is getting comparatively visible results.

Comieco’s work is inspired by the principle of subsidiarity, which ensures waste is picked up and recycled locall, all over the country and in all market conditions. This is no small matter when you consider that 2019 saw a depression in the market for recycled paper, after prices fell in 2018, which made locating the stuff more difficult. Against such a tricky backdrop, many municipalities that ran all or part of their own waste collection without private arrangements, asked to join Comieco’s network, to take advantage of its guaranteed pick-ups.

Under the ANCI-CONAI deal, the consortium manages larger quantities than before: 2 million tonnes (out of a national total of 3.5 million) in 2019, which is 600,000 tonnes more than in 2018. “In 2019, thanks to the amounts we managed under the deal,” Cecchini goes on, “we made 129 million euros, which was 32% up on the year before. It’s an impressive figure that’s testimony to our commitment to the public authorities and that guarantees essential resources for restarting recycling cardboard and paper.” Looking at the Italian data for recycling of cellulose-based packaging and comparing it with elsewhere in the EU, when it comes to reaching the goals in the legislation, Italy’s not doing at all badly.

European incentive

It also goes to show what an important part of the Italian circular economy the paper chain is. And good news has come out of Brussels: the rate of paper recycling in the EU went up from 71.7% in 2018 to 72% in 2019, thanks to constant application of the Paper for Recycling (PfR) scheme in the paper industry. The pronounced and continuous decline in Chinese demand for recycled paper from Europe was offset by rising demand in other countries, like Turkey and India.

“The 72% increase shows that recycling paper is not just a promise,” says Angelika Christ, president of the European Paper Recycling Council (EPRC), “but already, right now, a model of circularity and a big contributor to the European Green Deal.”