"There recycled plastic it can be used in almost all sectors of industrial production, with characteristics that are the same or comparable with those of virgin material ". He ensures it Roberto Frassine, Professor of the Department of Chemistry, Materials and Chemical Engineering of the Politecnico di Milano with whom we had a chat on the Italian and European situation, with a look to the future.
1) What is your opinion on plastic recycling?
Recycle plastic it is a moral duty to society and, if done intelligently, it also becomes economically viable and can generate value and jobs. This awareness of plastic materials began with the development that took place in the 70s with the introduction of lightweight and unbreakable plastic bottles for beverages. The increasingly widespread application of this type of "disposable" packaging has highlighted the need to adopt increasingly environmentally sustainable systems for managing the "end of life". Since the late 1980s there has been a constant increase in the separate collection and recycling of these artifacts. Today the recycled plastic is an established market reality with applications ranging from the automotive sector to the clothing sector, up to consumer electronics. An extraordinary result achieved in just 25 years.
2) Can you update us on the situation of plastic recycling for Italy? And for Europe?
The European situation today sees the various member countries of the Union classified into 3 large groups. There are the virtuosos (Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and Norway) with almost 100% recycled plastic or used to produce energy through waste-to-energy: they have already reached the ambitious "zero landfill" goal. Italy then follows with France, Spain, Finland and Ireland where the percentage is higher than 50%, the rear are the United Kingdom, Portugal and Greece as well as Bulgaria and Romania.
Italy is in line with the average of Western countries and is also in an excellent position in Europe, but the result is not equally distributed on the territory: at a per capita quantity of plastic collected in the North equal to over 15 kg / year it contrasts an amount equal to about two thirds collected in the Center and less than half collected in the South.
3) Who takes care of this in Italy?
With the so-called "Ronchi Decree", the "CONAI System" and the current one were born COREPLA Consortium, specifically dedicated to the recycling and recovery of plastic packaging. COREPLA's business is complex precisely because it is aimed at the entire vast and varied universe of plastic packaging, and no longer just containers for liquids. In fact, since 2012, disposable tableware has also been subject to separate collection. These actions have been undertaken in compliance with European Community policies, which unfortunately does not always occur in all sectors in our country. The European Commission updates the regulatory framework very frequently, and the next challenge is the goal set for 2020 of 50% recycling for all materials taken as a whole.
4) Can you give us an idea of the overall size of the problem, both in terms of quantity and economic terms?
The annual consumption of plastics in Europe in 2012 it was about 47 million tons: this is a significant amount, which represents 20% of world consumption. The corresponding turnover is approximately 80 billion euros for producers of raw materials and just under 200 billion euros for manufacturers of manufactured goods. The total number of jobs is almost one and a half million, including machinery manufacturers.
Italian consumption is approximately 7 million tons, which is reduced to 6 / 6.5 million net of the balance between imports and exports. Almost 40% of the plastic is used to produce packaging, which makes up about 60% of plastic waste which are generated annually. Thanks to the recycling and recovery of separate waste collection in Italy, approximately 22 million cubic meters are saved annually, which if disposed of in landfills would require more than 40 new sites of similar size to the planned Chiaiano landfill in the municipality of Naples. To have a more immediate comparison, on a plot equal to 100 football fields, a warehouse with a height of more than 30 meters would be established every year: a 9-storey building.
5) How is plastic reused in its second life?
The sectors in which the recycled plastic there are many uses, for example the same packaging, yarns and fabrics and disposable items. There are also numerous applications in horticulture, in urban, commercial and office furniture, in products for the home and in flooring. Recycled plastic can be used in almost all sectors of industrial production, with characteristics that are the same or comparable with those of virgin material.
6) What are the news on the recycling of this material?
The so-called "mechanical" recycling has been practiced for a long time and consists in the grinding with subsequent washing and drying of the fragments which can then be reused as they are or mixed with a certain amount of virgin polymer. It is possible, for some materials, to carry out "chemical" recycling which allows to "decompose" the material into simpler chemical substances (oligomers) to be used to produce new polymers without resorting to oil or to obtain fuels, thus reducing the overall use of non-renewable sources. Research is underway on the latter type of recycling to develop economically convenient and environmentally friendly processes.
7) How much do public administrations and companies invest in this field?
The companies of the specific industrial sector are all actively engaged in the recycling of their materials. To these are added the specific operators who adhere to the National Association of Plastic Recyclers and Regenerators (AssoRiMaP). The industrial induced of plastic material recycling activities is therefore considerable.
The role of public administrations is essential to also economically support recycling activities. In 2012 alone, on the basis of the framework agreement between the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI) and the National Packaging Consortium (CONAI), COREPLA paid to the Municipalities or collection operators from these delegates about 174 million euros to cover of the higher charges incurred by the Municipalities themselves for the separate collection of suns plastic packaging. The Consortium also bears the costs of selection, in order to ensure the market a product with specifications appropriate to the needs of the recycling industry.
Note: we would like to thank Eng. Giuseppe Rossi, President of COREPLA, for the kind concession of data relating to consumption and recycling in Italy and Europe.