This autumn, to mark Italy's renewed ambitions in the Circular Economy, the city of Rimini will host the 20th edition of Ecomondo, the largest Euro-Mediterranean fair dedicated to the green economy, to demonstrate that Italy has a lot to offer in investment and the sector of ‘closed cycle production’.

The event has been organised by regional authorities, leading Italian enterprises and cooperatives – with the laudable support of the government – and will witness the appearance of over 1,000 exhibitors ranging from startups and SME's to larger consortia and MNC's. They will all use the occasion to collectively shed light on their best practices and share innovative technological advancements by promoting ecological solutions that can durably impact the country's socio-economic landscape. 

Italy has been a primary actor in the Circular Economy and social innovation at the European level. Italian MEP Simona Bonafè (S&D), rapporteur to the European Parliament on the Circular Economy package, has been active in advancing legislative proposals to be tabled again in Brussels this year, amidst efforts to increase the competitiveness of Italian firms and relaunch the ‘Made in Italy’ brand. Indeed, while movement in a circular direction would be a profitable opportunity for Europe as a whole, Italy would be a particular beneficiary, given that its company base is largely composed of SME's that work in the secondary sector.

This is especially the case for the Italian wood refining and production industry – which has the second largest commercial surplus and highest level of R&D worldwide – where the adoption of a circular production structure (creating wealth from recycling, refurbishment and re-use of products) would yield large profit margins. A meeting was held in Venice last June between Italy's largest wood cooperative, Assopannelli- Federlegnoarredi, and the European Panel Federation (whose Chair is now Paolo Fantoni), together with Simona Bonafè, to set concrete goals for the implementation of a truly green economy in the wood sector – one that has the potential of adding 100,000 jobs and generating an estimated extra €22 billion for the industry. The two parties drafted a charter proposing the stabilisation of wood consumption, given the raw material’s precarious need for an alternative production model. On this basis, four main points were stipulated to push for changes in legislation relative to the use of biomass, incentive strategies, waste management of landfills, and urban wood. 

The proposals are hefty ones and several legal and logistic barriers have to be overcome beforehand. However, these are by no means unreachable objectives and it is evident that pursuing concrete efforts are clearly shifting Italy in the right direction.

Perhaps one of the most important cases at hand is the Gruppo Saviola, located in Mantova, which even in the 1960's pioneered the production of wood panels from only post-consumption wood. This has led them to reduce their carbon footprint to a minimum and they now stand as one most important companies in the wood design sector. To illustrate other examples, it is enough to simply look at the annual Salone del Mobile di Milano, the largest furniture fair in the world, which actively promotes sustainable alternatives for efficient house design. This also exemplifies how high-quality and aesthetically appealing furniture does not have to be compromised by ecological solutions; on the contrary, firms can reap great commercial benefits from a double added value deriving from lower per unit input costs. 

Apart from the wood industry, Italy's aluminium, chemical and agricultural sectors have equally been engaging in circular practices – the latter two being closely tied in the development of green chemistry, bio products and the bio economy as a whole. Indeed, the bio product industry is expanding in Italy, stimulated by a demand spike of biomass as an alternative energy source deriving from the organic waste of agricultural byproducts. Evidence of this can be seen in the conversion of the former petrochemical plant at Porto Torres in Sardinia (a project by the joint venture Matrica), which will produce, once the installation has been completed, 350 thousand tonnes of chemicals for consumer products originating from local biological crops.  

In Italy there are already economic realities surrounding the creation of a market based around the Circular Economy. Favini, for instance, uses waste products and the processing of agricultural products (corn, citrus fruit, kiwifruit, olives, lavender, cherries, almonds, hazelnuts and coffee beans) to make paper, cardboard and packaging. Funghi Espresso retrieves coffee grounds to produce mushrooms and kits for the domestic cultivation of mushrooms. But it is Piedmont’s chemical company Novamont that is particularly leading the global race in the creation of fully biodegradable plastics from such organic wastes, partnering with Lavazza to create the first fully circular coffee capsule (picture pending). Novamont was also present at the hugely successful Circonomia Festival held last May, along with Legambiente and regional authorities, to discuss good practices and energy management. 

CiAl, the largest Italian and third largest European aluminum repackaging and treatment consortium, was also present at the festival, to illustrate the key role that non-organic waste treatment firms are having in circular development. In fact, the aluminum business has reached an almost closed cycle of production. As of 2015, 46 million tonnes of aluminum have been recycled from municipalities all over Italy, 70% of which has been transformed and reintroduced into the market production cycle (mainly for transport and design).

Contarina is another interesting case which has been noted by Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, as being one of most impressive success stories of circular development in Veneto and Italy. The firm, currently in an experimentation phase, works in collaboration with Fater Spa, and has established a treatment plant for the recycling and differentiation of combustible solid waste.

Overall, Italy has been leading concrete efforts in the application of circular economy principles and can be seen as a European model for this. However, an effective shift would require a major diversion of European funds. Such capital is present (Horizon 2020) although, according to the General Director of CiAl, Gino Schiona, it is not directed in such a way that it maximises the efficient re-emission of the metal in alternative production cycles. Thus, most of the change will have to occur through private investment – Paolo Fantoni announced in February that his Friulian company will invest €60 million in the Plaxil 8 MDF plant designed to transform end-use wood panels into renewed softwood fibre – especially if additional public funds (incentive mechanisms) remain strained due to traditional conflicting political and economic interests.

In spite of this, Italy should continue to expand its recycling targets and move forward with the recently adopted legislative bill (Collegato Ambientale in January) regarding the green economy and waste management, so that it can truly bring about institutional change and re-value the richness of Italy’s territory.