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Zero Waste Italy and Milan: Case Study

"Milan provides evidence for the viability of intensive kerbside collection schemes."


This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 of our online course.

The city of Milan is currently rolling out the largest collection program for organics on the planet. In this fifth episode, we’re talking to Enzo Favoino of Zero Waste Europe who brings us up to speed on what’s happening in Milan, and gives us all the exciting news from Italy’s growing organic recycling movement.

Interview by Eleen Murphy

Thank you to Novamont for making this episode possible.

Novamont is one of the world’s leading producers of certified compostable biopolymers. Since 1989, its family of Mater-Bi resins have been used worldwide to produce compostable products like bags, liners and food service ware that are essential for the effective separation, collection and composting of organic waste. Novamont’s mission is to find solutions to environmental problems, encouraging the transition from a product based economy to a system based economy: innovative products that contain renewable agricultural materials, which return to the soil to complete the carbon cycle. For more info, visit Novamont’s website or email



EM: So Enzo, the Zero Waste Movement is getting very big in Italy, can you tell us what’s happening right now in Milan, and what you’re up to there?

EF: Well actually Milan did not declare a Zero Waste commitment, but Milan in any case has contributed to a true Zero Waste vision because it’s the largest town with a kerbside scheme for separate collection of organics which we know is so fundamental to move forward the boundaries of what we consider practicable. Therefore even though it’s not a Zero Waste town as yet, it’s giving a very big contribution in terms of evidence it’s providing for practicability and viability of intensive kerbside collection schemes.

EM: That’s great. And could you tell us a bit about the history of the Zero Waste Movement in Italy?

EF: Yeah. That was started in 2007 in Capannori, which is a mid-sized town. It’s in Tuscany, central Italy and that was started basically by Rossano Ercolini, who in 2013 was awarded the Goldman Prize, which is considered world-wide as the green Nobel for the environment. Capannori was the first one to set the pace and now we have over two hundred municipalities where commitment has been adopted already.

It might be important for you to know that also we collected more than eight thousand signatures in order to have a Zero Waste tax tabled in the parliamentary debate. We had to collect a minimum of fifty thousand signatures and we went well beyond it, with more than eighty-five thousand signatures. So now we’re tabled in the parliamentary debate – next few weeks, it will have to be discussed in the parliament.

EM: Wow, so it’s really taking off in Italy

EF: Yeah, indeed. So, in first instance, whenever a municipality adopts a Zero Waste commitment, we tend to put the emphasis on the commitment itself, even before certain results, certain performances are achieved. So you may be a Zero Waste municipality even if you are temporarily at a comparatively low separate collection rate, provided you have got commitment to do more and more, better and better, year by year.

EM: That’s a good way to look at it. And Milan has the kerbside systems in place now, can you tell me where that organic material is processed?

EF: For the moment, Milan is sending the separately collected organics to a big anaerobic digestion site, which is sited some forty kilometers from Milan. The Waste Management Department for Milan, which is held and ran by a public company – it’s AMSA: the public company providing waste collection in Milan. They are now planning to have a process site of their own which most probably be an anaerobic digestion site.

EM: Okay cool. And where does the product, the digestate, go at the end of production?

EF: Yeah, yeah. According to Italian regulation, the digestate always has to be post-composted. It has to undergo aerobic treatment after anaerobic digestion in order to gain the legal status of a product. So at that very anaerobic digestion site it gets post-composted and the compost is being sold and applied in various sites and markets.

The Italian situation for the use of compost is fairly promising because we are a southern Mediterranean country; we have got ten regions out of twenty regions with subsidy programmes in order to promote use of organic fertilisers instead of mineral fetlisers and this is also propelling the interest in composts.

EM: Ah, okay, and has that a lot to do with the climate, or is it about regulations?

EF: It has to do with the particular agricultural and environmental situation in Italy. As any Mediterranean area, Italy is under the threat for desertification. The whole Mediterranean basin is being declared to be as a pre-desertification area. This is why we have a consistent strategy in order to replenish our soils in organic matter.

EM: That’s good reason to start composting. And moving back to Milan, I’d like to talk a little bit about the compositional analysis you ran on the detective quality of the collected material, can you tell us your findings?

EF: Yeah, we did it already a couple of times. They were promising. Since the first weeks we rolled out the scheme for separate collection, I go by memory but we had between two and six percent impurities – contraries – inside the food waste, which is aligned with kerbside schemes in small villages basically. So it means that the result depends much more on the type of the scheme rather than the urban situation. Of course, by far most of the bags, which are being used in order to make the system user-friendly are the biobags. You know, this has been a fundamental instrument in Italy in order to optimise performances of separate collection systems for the organics. We still have got a few polyethylene bags, which are used by mistake by people, but this is decreasing since Italy was the first European country to adopt a ban on single-use shopping polyethylene bags.

EM: Yeah, we have a ban on those in Ireland too actually, it’s made a huge difference.

EF: Yeah.

EM: And looking now at the bigger picture, we know that there are a lot of success factors in rolling out such a program, especially in a large city, what was key in Milan?

EF: Well, there’s many factors for success. Of course, the most important, I would say the top-most priority is to have a committed local government. Because the local government provides the leadership: even though it’s a two-way process, in that we have the top-down action from the local government down to the population, and we’ve got the bottom-up action with grass-roots movements exerting pressure on the local governments. Normally in first instance, it’s the grass-roots movements exerting pressure and convincing the local government to adopt a Zero Waste strategy – a Zero Waste Charter. If we consider the operational approaches, the true springboard towards Zero Waste has been the implementation of a kerbside scheme targeting also the organics. With such a system you quite easily jump up to seventy percent separate collection, eight percent separate collection. Then after that, in order to move towards one hundred percent, what we do next is the implementation of a pay-as-you-throw scheme, pay-per-bag or pay-per-bins scheme, and these increases separate collection by a further ten percent, but also it remarkably decreases the overall waste arisings.

EM: That’s incredible, and for those taking the course, we go into kerbside systems in lesson four quite a bit. We also talk about community outreach, and education is one of the most important things, isn’t it?

EF: Of course. Education and outreach is what I call…it’s the fuel in the engine. But you may have very good fuel; if you don’t have a very good engine, the car doesn’t move. And the engine of the system is the type of separate collection you implement. Bring systems never work so effectively as kerbside systems do. So upfront you have to plan, design and operate a well performing kerbside system targeting also the organics. And then of course, in the last two months above all, you will have to be focused on education and outreach. That’s the most important period – two months before starting the system. Not too soon, not too late.

EM: Right, and that’s just going door-to-door and telling people…?

EF: Yeah, door to door, also distributing leaflets and booklets, bombing them with ads and so on.

EM: Right, exactly. And another thing is that, often times you talk about how it’s not just about recycling but it’s about prevention as well – could you give us some details about what you’re doing to prevent the waste from happening in the first place?

EF: Good question, yeah, good question. This is also an important cornerstone of local Zero Waste programmes. I would say that whilst in the past we started kerbside collection including the organics back in 1993 in Italy – so we’ve got a long-track record of activities in this respect, it’s more than twenty years by now – in the last few years, we have started working consistently also on waste prevention. In this respect the Zero Waste municipalities are leading the way.

And what we do is: we don’t just wait for the industrial responsibility to play it’s role – because when we talk about waste prevention of course, minds are attracted by the need of eco-design in industrial production, reducing the amount of packaging, so on and so forth. Which is important, and this does not depend on the level responsibility of the local communities. But there is something we can do right away at the level of responsibility of the local authorities: it’s what we call the ready-effect or off-the-shelf actions. And this includes home composting, promoting water from the tap, which has been very successful in Italy: we have got thousands of municipalities where we have the so-called water houses and the milk houses. So you can go there with your own bottle and you get water and milk, instead of going and buying milk and water at the supermarket and taking home Tetra Pak and plastics, which produces waste.

Also, we have promoted the so-called sustainable event-management. When we have got local parties, in many municipalities regulation has been adopted according to each: you need to put in place some waste prevention measures. Such as no throwaway cutlery, no throwaway dishes; you need to use reusable dishes and cutlery, or compostable dishes and cutlery sometimes. Also another one which is very promising and we have been adopting it in quite a few municipalities already – is the use of cloth nappies instead of throwaway nappies

EM: Right.

EF: Diapers…

EM: Right, yeah. I heard about that actually, I thought that was a great idea.

EF: Yeah and the bundle effect of such actions normally gives us ten to fifteen percent reduction in total waste arisings.

EM: That’s amazing. It must be a huge amount of nappies then too…

EF: Yeah. And then pay-as-you-throw of course exerts also a huge effect. If they go purchasing anything, they also consider what might be the final effect in terms of waste production, after the use of what they have purchased.

EM: Yeah, I can see that would work very well.

EF: Yeah.

EM: Yeah, and what are the next big cities to adopt the practice on a large scale?

EF: Well actually, much before Milan – Milan has had a separate collection system for large producers since 1995. In the last two years we have implemented separate collection for the households. And what makes Milan unique is that it’s now about to cover one hundred percent of the population, namely 1.4 million people, which makes it the largest kerbside scheme for the collection of the organics worldwide.

But before Milan, we had a very large separate collection system for the organics from households in Turin. In Turin there’s already fifty percent of the population, which is covered by kerbside collection of the organics. Unfortunately there, the program was stopped because lately a large incinerator was started, which tells us once again that incineration and separate collection…there will always come a time where they fight each other. They had to stop further development of separate collection because they needed garbage to burn, which is a really unfortunate situation.

There’s already quite a few pilot neighborhoods in such large towns as Rome and Naples itself, providing the same results as it provides in Northern Italy – namely sixty-five to seventy percent separate collection in those neighbourhoods. But you know, the problem is: such results there are quite hidden in the total averages of separation for the whole town. But those three neighbourhoods in Naples, they have achieved sixty-five to seventy percent.

EM: Cool, and I hope that it keeps going that way.

EF: We are there to exert pressure (laughs), of course.

EM: (laughs) Very good. And do you have any final words or advice for our audience.

EF: Just keep up the good work and always consider that separate collection is at the core of any sustainable strategy for waste management. And when I say sustainable, I mean not only environmentally sustainable, but also economically effective – that’s for sure.

EM: Brilliant, well said. Thanks a million Enzo, for coming on the show today, Best of luck in the future!

EF: Thank you!

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