Adelante con juicio (Proceed with caution). Perhaps, the Italian Government draws inspiration from the 19th century writer Alessandro Manzoni’s famous novel “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed), in their management of the bioeconomy issue. It is true that from 20th April 2017, when the Italian national strategy was introduced, to date, a change of government has occurred. Yet, there is still no sign of the action plan needed to turn words into deeds. An action plan strongly endorsed by Catia Bastioli, Novamont’s CEO, in her capacity as President of Spring – the Italian Cluster of Green Chemistry – during a meeting held in Naples on the 28th of June. “From strategy to action” was the motto at the public meeting where, amongst others, Gianni Girotto – Chairman of the Industry Committee at the Senate – gave a speech reiterating his position as a staunch supporter of a sustainable development model based on the use of biological resources.

However, everything is still on hold despite the “government of change,” as the yellow and black national populist government defines itself. Italy is at risk of losing its hard-earned leadership. A leadership that was achieved through the vision of a few enlightened entrepreneurs and the ability of researchers in both the public and private sectors. There may well be trouble ahead – warn Italian experts – if large investments to create new bioproducts in biorefineries that are unique in their kind do not find target markets. In other words, there is a need to create a market. In order to do that, first and foremost, equal opportunities between fossil-fuel-based products and bio-based ones are required. Today this is not the case. Especially considering that, according to the IMF, $5.300 billion in subsidies were allocated for fossil fuels in 2015.

Meanwhile, one of the leading protagonists of the Italian bioeconomy has just thrown in the towel. The Mossi Ghisolfi Group is on the verge of bankruptcy. Obviously the Italian government has nothing to do with it, nor the investments in green chemistry. The reason for the crisis, of what in the past was Italy’s third largest chemical group, is linked to traditional PET business and a bad investment in Texas. 

The crisis has dragged with it Beta Renewables and Biochemtex, the company that rules over the Crescentino plant for the production of second generation bioethanol, and inaugurated with much fanfare only 5 years ago, in October 2013. Their bailout came on the 25th of September, when Versalis, the chemical division of Eni, acquired it by placing 80 million euros on the table; the auction price set by the Court of Alessandria for the four bio companies of the Tortona Group. Now, the hope is that production can resume and that jobs are salvaged. 

Therefore, the Mossi Ghisolfi crisis is not the crisis of the Italian bioeconomy. On the 20th of June, the company Bio-on opened its first plant for the production of special 100% natural and biodegradable PHA bioplastics to be used in advanced goods niches; such as microbeads for the cosmetic sector. The new production hub is located in Castel San Pietro Terme near Bologna, built on a 30,000 m2 surface, 3,700 m2 of which being covered space, and 6,000 m2 with planning permission. Annual production capacity is 1,000 tonnes, which the Bologna-based company is preparing to double in the near future.

Novamont has already doubled the annual production capacity of its subsidiary Mater Biopolymer, that deals with polyester with a high biomonomer-based renewable raw material content, going from 50,000 to 100,000 tonnes in the Patrica plant, near Frosinone. The Novara-based company confirms its leadership in the bioplastics market, with turnover now approaching €200 million.

Many more small and medium enterprises are now venturing out into the world of the Italian circular bioeconomy, including Renovo, Vegea, Orange Fiber, GFBiochemicals and EggPlant. The 4th report on the Bioeconomy in Europe, drawn out by Intesa San Paolo’s Direzione Studi and presented in Palermo in March 2018, outlined Italy’s 576 innovative start-ups in this meta-sector, already worth €260 billion, and over 8% of overall national production. There is also a new found relevance for Italy’s southern regions, since many of these companies’ pilot plants are located in Apulia, Campania and Sicily. The Sicily-based Orange Fiber patented a process to extract cellulose from orange waste after pressing, so as to process and produce a new sustainable fabric which is already being used by the Florence-based fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo. EggPlant, based in Apulia, is a start-up that has developed a technology with which to reuse wastewater derived from the dairy industry to produce PHA-based biodegradable and compostable plastic for food packaging.

The excitement for the chemical and biotechnological industries is accompanied by that of the food sector with companies such as Ferrero, Granarolo and Cremonini Group that are testing the use of their by-products in the development of new bioproducts for cosmetics, wellbeing and nutrition. For instance, Ferrero, the multinational corporation that is internationally renowned for Nutella, has drawn on research carried out with universities and international research centres to set up a process that is able to extract 20% of a prebiotic fibre from nutshells – Axos – with antioxidant properties and beneficial effects on the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as on lipid metabolism.

Although skills and competences are not in short supply, people still complain that there is a need for a central governing body. International competition is very strong: governments make long-term plans and invest resources. The exact opposite of what happens in Italy, where many are still waiting for the Ministry of Research grants they won in 2010. Here, the system of public research depends on Brussels to obtain those funds which are necessary to carry out innovation. In 2017, Italian researchers were ranked first in terms of grants won for the EU Horizon 2020 programme devoted to the bioeconomy sectors, with a success rate that was however stuck at 18%.

Numerous projects on the use of waste and by-products for new innovative products have been started all over Italy, including fertilisers, chemical intermediates, bioplastics, food and cosmetic ingredients, biofuels and feeds. Interviews with a number of sector researchers show that there are a few issues, mainly cultural and regulatory ones, which only too often nip such high-value initiatives in the bud. From grain to the agrifood and forestry sectors, from dairy to tanning and leather sectors; deriving new materials from waste is already practiced as a way of regenerating value and incentivising new forms of national development, from rural to coastal areas. However, whereas researchers and entrepreneurs are well aware of the rationale behind circularity, the legal system is not yet factoring it in. From a regulatory point of view, the main issues concern organic biomass recovery belonging to the waste category at the end of their cycle and long-winded procedures that inhibit the establishment of pilot, demonstration and commercial plants. Many people await “the government of change,” or alternatively a change in government.  



Cluster Spring,

La Bioeconomia in Europa. 4° Rapporto, marzo 2018 (The Bioeconomy in Europe. 4th Report, March 2018);

Top image: Picture from “I promessi sposi” of Ferrer from chapter 13, Francesco Gonin, 1840/wikicommons