The circular economy. It is difficult to determine where it starts and where it ends. We could imagine a 3D journey in which a circle becomes a spiral and the third axis is represented by the second law of thermodynamics, the one about the irreversibility of physical processes without adding energy. If this was the case, linear economy advocates could be right. They claim that a resource must be exploited full stop while enjoying the benefits of this “development” in the short term. But there is a fly in the buttermilk of this theory: solar energy powers the whole renewable energy system and should do so for the next 4 billion years. In practice, it is this energy that we will need to power the circular economy in the near future, without undermining the second law of thermodynamics. And since this kind of economy works, it must be adjusted so that the waste of energy – and matter – decreed by the laws of thermodynamics is minimized, guaranteeing increasingly better results.
This is the logic inspiring twelve companies in the recycling sector in Tuscany that have tried to go beyond the only worry about the percentage of separate collection and aiming at improving the quality of recycled materials, saving energy and resources in order to minimize as much as possible the effects of the second law of thermodynamics.
And it has not been a simple task. The urban waste sector is indeed the most complex aspect of the circular economy because its first phase, that of waste production, is very much influenced by sociology. And when we talk about human activities, of “segments” of society, things tend to become complicated and any attempt to rationalize results is equally complex. While the production of industrial waste is the result of a “simple” process of a sector from which at a certain point a substance or a material is expelled and that can be processed in an unequivocal way becoming, thanks to a rather simple process, a secondary raw material, urban waste has inbuilt in its DNA the complexity of its production. That is human beings. Its composition changes over time and according to the social class it comes from, depending on what we buy and on our lifestyle and our age group. These are the reasons why the waste question is studied from a sociological point of view.
The initiative devised by the players of the recycling sector in Tuscany is called Toscana Ricicla and aims at improving separate collection quality, focussing on the first part of the chain, the most complex to control and on which then it is necessary to act: source separation. In our homes.
“The first problem has been identified in the mistakes made in the right conferment of waste by citizens,” claims Diego Barsotti, Revet Recycling Communication Manager, “and that’s why we have devised Toscana Ricicla.” It is an integrated communication platform shared by all to improve the quality of material deriving from Tuscany’s recycling supply chains that are well developed and now need quality second raw materials.
Excellence in Recycling
“Tuscany starts from a relatively good separate collection scenario, but it is not excellent since it only represents 44%,” Barsotti continues. “But what we wanted to develop was the fact Tuscany has an advanced recycling sector, both compared to Italy and Europe, because nearly all materials recovered through separate collection are recycled locally. For instance, all glass is recycled in a plant in Empoli, as well as Tetrapak that in our region does not end up in paper banks like in other areas.” This material, which until a decade ago was considered by environmentalists as an evil because made of cardboard, aluminium and plastic, now in Tuscany has its own recycling chain that collects it and sorts it. Once collected in homogenous bales, it is sent to a paper mill near Lucca. Here, a plant for the recycling of this material is able to extract the cellulosic fibres contained, very valuable because they come from Swedish conifer forests, and with which it is possible to produce unbleached kitchen and toilet paper completely derived from recycling.
And the same goes for biowaste. In Tuscany, there are several composting plants where it can be used directly in a short supply chain; pulp paper is also used by paper mills in the province of Lucca.
“Finally,” Barsotti adds, “we have the mixed plastics supply chain that represents our pride and joy compared to Europe and the rest of Italy. Generally speaking, different types of plastic packaging, excluding bottle and phials, are sent to energy recovery because due to the presence of different polymers they are difficult to recycle together. In Pontedera, Rivet Recycling recovers all mutually compatible polymers and produces granules with a global market because their quality is comparable to that of virgin matter but with a lower cost. So in Tuscany even the mixed plastic supply chain represents the state of the art because in Italy there are only three plants for the recycling of mixed plastics.”
Toscana Ricicla, a platform created by communicators within the recycling sector, has two objectives. First: to bring out Tuscany’s pride and joy, that is the recycling sector which is strictly connected to the circular economy and which is also the least known. The second objective is to improve separate collection quality. It targets citizens, and to be more specific, this year it is targeting citizens who are already involved in separate collection but who could improve. In other words, it is addressing problems at source to improve the whole process.
And there is room for improvement. For instance, on multi-material collection, waste varies between 10 to 15% and it is nearly always due to citizens’ mistakes. Sometimes these behaviours are easily changed. A classic example is that of organic waste collected in non-compostable bags.
But the damage caused is not trivial. For instance, a single ceramic cup can pollute an entire glass bank. The reason is very simple. Ceramic does not melt at the same temperature as glass and its fragments are difficult to identify in the material flow and this is why new products, if they contain ceramic, are faulty and must be reintroduced into the system and in doing so ceramic fragments become smaller and smaller and increasingly more difficult to spot. But that’s not all. The glass recycling supply chain “suffers” due to the presence of pirex and crystal containing silver and lead. This is such a problem in the glass supply chain that it prefers avoiding the conferment of glasses just in case they are made of crystal.
The Twelve Knights of Recycling
Toscana Ricicla Participants:
1. Regione Toscana
2. Aer Ambiente Energia Risorse SpA
3. Asm Ambiente Servizi Mobilità
4. Cis Srl
5. Cispel Confservizi Toscana
6. Geofor Spa
7. Publiambiente S.p.A.
8. Quadrifoglio Spa Servizi Ambientali Area Fiorentina
9. Rea (Rosignano Energia Ambiente Spa)
11. Sei Toscana
With such a plethora of information to be communicated to citizens, it is clear why Toscana Ricicla communicators wanted to create a coherent information system on recycling, plagued nonetheless by a basic flaw. As a matter of fact, the recycling panorama presents “historical” basic flaws that have never been rectified. The Ronchi Decree, which started separate collection in Italy, stated that implementing decrees with calculation and method standards for separate collection would have been published shortly. In reality, typology of containers and colour scheme at national level should have been defined. Implementing decrees have never materialized and this is the reason why each municipality, but often even each neighbourhood, has different collecting methods, containers and colour schemes. “So this is why people living in Florence all year round, when they go to their holiday homes, they are faced with a completely different system from the one they are used to. And this is how mistakes occur,” Barsotti continues.
Toscana Ricicla has been operational for two year and this year it will focus on a type of communication exploiting multimediality to the full: with videos uploaded on websites by local newspapers, on social networks and broadcast by TV channels and radio commercials. They also thought of “targeting” citizens with some viral campaigns. “We decided to install webcameras pointed at heaps of waste from each supply chains in order to show live, in real time, how much material is wasted despite everybody’s commitment to recycling,” Barsotti carries on. “We also created a Settimana della qualità (‘Focus on Quality Week’): a regular event where we will present everything that we can do and make at home with recycled materials. An event that after its first edition in Florence – from 18th to 27th November in Piazza della Repubblica – will move to other chief towns in Tuscany. In the meantime, within this project, we are creating videos telling the story of materials and some TV commercials starring Florence-born actress Daniela Morozzi, a well know actress who played Vittoria Guerra in the Distretto di Polizia series.”
Everything will be available on Toscana Ricicla website where regional recycling data will also be available. The website will also allow people to fill in a questionnaire on separate collection to enter a competition: the winner will win recycled plastic street furniture for his or her municipality: benches, tables, noticeboards and paving. A firsthand experience of the benefits of virtuous separate collection.
Revet Recycling, www.revet-recycling.com