In the last few years, the European Union has focused particularly on the issue of pollution of the seas and beaches, caused mainly by the increasingly widespread use of disposable plastic. With the aim of limiting this phenomenon, in fact, the European Commission recently met in Brussels to consider new measures that include banning the ten categories of plastic products that are most commonly found in European seas and beaches. Among these products are, for example, polystyrene cutlery and plates, straws, cotton sticks for the ears and disposable glasses. At this meeting, the European Commission has also selected the new targets to be met by the 28 Member States by 2025, which include recycling of at least 55% of urban waste, a reduction in the use of landfills (up to a maximum of 10%), recycling of 65% of packaging and, finally, the separate collection of textile waste, dangerous waste and biodegradable waste.
In the last few years, the level of attention that Italy pays to sustainability issues has certainly increased and Italians are increasingly adopting measures that have a lower impact on the environment. Much remains to be done, especially with regard to the use of plastic materials in the production of packaging, but even in this context there are signs of improvement: according to the latest Corepla report, in 2017 there are about 7,000 municipalities active in the service of selecting collection of plastic packaging, which recorded a +11% in the quantities transferred to the consortium compared to 2016. 586,786 are the tons of plastic packaging that have been recycled and 324,480 those sent for energy recovery. Furthermore, according to Corepla, the national average per capita of differentiated waste collection rose from 15.8 to 17.7 kg per inhabitant per year, with Sardinia, Valle d’Aosta and Veneto leading the ranking. At the same time, there is an increase in the number of companies and industrial chains that have begun to look for alternative solutions, such as the case of Grom ice cream parlors offering compostable cups. This multi-faceted commitment could help Italy reach the 2020 target of reducing the percentage of plastic packaging going to landfill to zero.
The plastic emergency in the oceans is increasingly alarming, as demonstrated by the study conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (Germany), which analyzed the presence of microplastics in Arctic Glacial Sea ice and stated that levels of marine pollution have never reached such high concentrations. The ice samples from five different areas were in fact found to contain more than 12 thousand microplastic particles per liter of sea ice.- The microplastic found comes from six types of materials: polyethylene and polypropylene (used for packaging), paints (on ships), nylon (fishing nets), polyester and cellulose acetate (mainly used in the production of filters for cigarettes). These results have also highlighted that more than half of the particles of microplastics trapped in the ice measure less than one-twentieth of a millimeter and, therefore, can be easily ingested by microorganisms such as ciliates or copepods, putting at risk marine life and, ultimately, that of human beings.
The results of the three-year study on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) – carried out by 16 international researchers and published by the Journal Scientific Reports – have revealed the true proportions and composition of the plastic island, which is currently floating in the oceans. As a matter of fact, the researchers have confirmed that the GPGP is composed of approximately 80 million kilograms of floating plastic debris of various size and shape, consisting mainly of Polyethylene and Polypropylene, and it covers an area 3 times the size of continental France. Experts have highlighted the urgency of finding a solution to address the situation, especially by analyzing the results regarding the concentration of microplastics in the area –1.8 trillion pieces – which is estimated to further increase by 30 times for a total of about 50 trillion particles. Lastly, researchers have emphasized the necessity to act rapidly, by implementing substantial international measures in the coming decade, with the aim of halting the increasing inflow of plastic waste into the oceans. In addition to that, they have suggested supporting removal initiatives, such as coastal and ocean cleanups, for existing plastics that accumulate in the oceans and threaten the welfare of the marine fauna.
According to a study published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the oceans. The always-increasing phenomenon of oceanic pollution caused by plastic has started to alarm governments and environmental associations, so much so that Lisa Svensson – Coordinator of the UNEP (United Nation Environment Programme) for Marine and Coastal Ecosystems- has included this phenomenon among the “global crises”. As a matter of fact, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic are released into the sea every year, bottles, packaging and other waste. In response to this critical situation, many countries have started to develop laws to abolish the use of disposable packaging and products largely made of plastic. Among those Italy that, following the abolition of plastic bags in supermarkets, has also extended this ban to bags used in the retail sale of fruit and vegetables, replacing them by biodegradable ones.
According to the “Italy of the Recycling 2017” report, the recycling sector, with 8.4 million tonnes of waste being recycled and an average growth over the previous year of the 3%, has reached a value of 23 billion Euros, which is equivalent to 1% of the country’s GDP. The reuse of recovered waste materials, through the separation of urban waste, is a brilliant example of the advantages of the circular economy: at the end of their life cycle, products and materials are processed and transformed into new resources, from which to generate new consumer goods. There are many positive aspects: the reduction of the cost of raw materials, the minimization of the quantity of waste going to landfills and, last but not least, the reduction of environmental pollution. Plastic is at the top of the most recycled materials in Italy; according to the data collected by Legambiente and the Corepla Consortium, 550 out of the 960 thousand tonnes of plastic waste collected have been reused, thus avoiding their accumulation in landfill and their dispersion into the environment.
The European Commission declares war against plastic waste. The new plan for the complete recycling of plastic packaging by 2030 includes a clearer labelling to distinguish compostable and biodegradable polymers, rules for the separate collection of waste on ships, and waste management in ports. The strategy aims to reduce the 25 million tons of plastic waste produced per year in Europe, by increasing the share of plastic residues destined to recycling and reuse, which is today only 30% of the total. At the moment, a significant portion of this percentage is eventually treated by third markets, such as China, which has, however, announced a crackdown on the import of plastic waste. All plastic packaging placed on the EU market must be designed to be reusable and recyclable by 2030. In order to reach the set-goal, the Commission intends to review the legislative requirements for placing of the packaging on the market. New fundings are foreseen as a support to this strategy and spending will be mainly on research and development, with 100 million euros invested by 2020. Finally, the intentionally used microplastics will move towards a total ban, while the measures to reduce unintentional ones, such as tire wear rubber particles or polyester and nylon residues, released into washing waters, are still under study.