She calls it “a Copernican revolution”. And the circular economy certainly is. Because, as Franco Battiato put it, it changes the world’s perspectives, placing sustainability at the heart of the matter. Rossella Muroni, Legambiente’s President, explains why it is high time we entered this new parallel world to heal our vices. She does not mince her words, taking digs at Confindustria, the governments and Italian MEPs.


What is the circular economy and how can it change our lives?

“The circular economy puts the concept of reduction and reuse at the centre of production and consumption patterns. It is an exemplification of the four ‘R’ principles and it is about everybody’s life because it can really give us a true opportunity to come out of the climate, energy and environmental crises in order to embrace sustainability.”


The environmental advantages are obvious. But does the circular economy also entail social advantages?

“Without a doubt. They are intrinsically linked to the concept of multi-protagonism. With the circular economy it is no longer just one business producing a certain good for the market, but it is a variety of players, private and public – non profit ones as well – that get involved in the production process. It is no coincidence that the circular economy converses profusely with the civil economy. It is a Copernican revolution, a multidirectional relation challenging one of the market’s axioms: the unidirectional relationship between producer and consumer.”


Does the circular economy pay in terms of employment? Or does less and better consumption also mean less work?

“It is not about reducing consumption, but to move it and qualify it. The circular economy does not entail job cuts. If anything it needs more labour. We calculated that the separate waste cycle and the reuse of secondary raw material have created 150,000 new jobs over the years. The circular economy is an environmental social proposal but first and foremost an economic one with full dignity, even from a social viewpoint. It is a parallel and alternative model offering opportunities for workers.”


In Italy, though, it is almost unknown. Let’s face it: is Italy the right country for the circular economy?

“I reckon it is. There is a delay compared to other countries such as Germany. It is mainly a cultural delay that – I would like to point out – has more to do with politics than citizens. Italians are ready to change their lifestyle and offer an ideal situation where to experiment new production, distribution and reuse models. But politics does not take up the challenge.”


What should politics do (that it is not) in order to promote the circular economy and more generally environmental policies? Recently, it seems that we are moving backwards, for example with regard to renewable sources.

“Renewable sources have been heavily penalized and today they have been crippled in Italy. The latest regulations only helped long production-chain biomasses, just what every citizen should avoid at all costs. Then, Renzi’s government is messing about with fossil fuels: it believed in drilling and we had to put a strong pressure, with a revolt of many coastline regions, so that the government changed its mind. And yet this will not avoid a referendum. There is still a lot to do. There is a need for a law on stopping soil consumption and above all a good reception, in an ameliorating sense, of the European directive on circular consumption. We need to promote the creation of start-ups, with regional laws too.”


Did we go back to those years when the environment was not a priority?

“It is worse because on paper they tell you that it is, trumpeting the signature of the Paris agreement from the rooftop, but in practice there is a wide gap between what is declared and what is put into practice. Having said that, 2015 closed with two pieces of good news, the approval of the laws on environmental crimes and that on environmental measures to promote the green economy. Let’s take it from here, although there is still a lot to do...”


Who are the enemies of the circular economy?

“Those with an old notion of economic process. The same people opposed to the development of renewable sources, those seeing in the 19th century-production models a plausible prospect for the future.”


For example? Can you name and shame a few?

“For example Condindustria (General Confederation of Italian Industries), which still represents cultural as well as business backwardness for Italy. In Italy, unfortunately entrepreneurs are largely unprepared for the new challenges.”


You sound quite harsh.

“I am realistic. I think there is a problem of generational turnover...”


Let’s consider the European directive. In its first version it was met with great consensus amongst environmentalists, a bit less in its second. You were very critical: where have we moved backwards?

“Undoubtedly with regard to the objectives on the recycling of urban waste. The shrinking percentages are very worrying. We went from 70% by 2030 to 65% and on top of it some countries can request a five-year extension. It is all about a dumbing down policy promoted by lobbies and adopted at political level. Such operation shows how for many people environmental objectives are still seen as an obstacle rather than a booster to growth. To make matters worse, as it happened with the car emission standards, the weakness of Italian political representatives in Europe becomes apparent. The question of Italian MEPs lack of preparation should be brought to the forefront.” 


But this is another kettle of fish...

“Of course. Going back to our directive the objective for packaging has been reduced, from 80 to 75%. What is the message, here? The same. The environment is a hurdle. It is a grave injustice that the target of the organic fraction collection is only voluntary and not compulsory. And another step back with the objective on the efficiency of the use of resources. While it is positive that prevention of programmed obsolescence of appliances has been introduced. On the whole, some steps forward have been taken and a European framework has been designed, but there is still some stubborn defence of the status quo. The circular economy is still not widely regarded as a development project, although of a different kind. And this is a shame.”


The European directive, though, must not be taken sight unseen. What does Legambiente ask?

“We ask our Parliament to be daring. To go further. For example we should be proud of the experience of consortia of separate waste collection and promote such practices even further. Because when it comes to paper, cardboard, plastic, we have been too many times and for too long stuck on the concept of packaging while the host of collectable materials and objects in a separate way has to be broadened if the fraction of mixed collection is to be reduced. Then a transparency chain is needed, helping consumers and rewarding those carrying out a better separate waste collection.”


Instead, every city has a different separate waste collection system. An obscure choice...

“I’d say a silly one. Because if regulations are different from city to city, the labelling cannot show where anything is destined to. Also, citizens do move about, especially in the summer and this is not taken into account, so in some places the collection, at least during the season, is always compromised by citizens who make mistakes in good faith, thus lowering the quality of collection.”


What would you like the European directive to include that is not already there?

“For example, total elimination of landfills. Indications on the waste transport, with strict regulations.”


What can the world of consortia do to support the circular economy?

“It should unite, making collection easier and more coordinated. Then it should apply more pressure on policy makers and carry on doing what they are very good at: getting citizens involved, with a proactive role of education and information.”


What about the industry?

“It should believe in it. The use or recycled materials, or of innovative practices, could be in many cases an opportunity to grab and not a way to greenwash and carrying on with old practices for the bulk of production. Then, more research is needed: that means having more innovation and more market fields. Because we, unlike the old Italian entrepreneurs, are in favour of sustainability and innovation and we have always been convinced that environmental recipes pay off, even economically.”



Top image: Armillary sphere, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771. ©Wikicommons