The circularity of plastics: industrial opportunities, innovation and economic-occupational benefits for Italy

Circular Economy: bioplastics seen as strategic for enhancing the circularity of the plastics sector. This is according to the new report from The European House – Ambrosetti.

Bioplastics represent 2% of the plastics sector as a whole, with strong turnover and a constantly-expanding workforce. Bioplastics must also be supported by promoting organic recycling, to enhance the circularity of the Italian plastics sector.

The figures are impressive: bioplastics have recorded revenues of €1.1 billion and national production of over 125,000 tonnes, a 13.2% increase % compared with 2020 and 219% higher than the figure of a decade ago. They employ almost 2,900 people across 275 companies. And they represent 2% of the total plastics market in Italy. By way of comparison, in France and Germany they represent just 0.3%. In addition, they stand out for their level of innovation and represent an essential element in the challenge of ecological transition and the shift away from high environmental-impact materials. These are the main figures of the bioplastics sector contained in the Report “The Circularity of Plastics: Industrial Opportunities, Innovation and Economic Employment Impacts for Italy”, published by The European House – Ambrosetti for the Italian plastics sector. Promoted by the Italian production sector (among whose partners are the BIOREPACK Consortium, and trade associations and Italian and multinational companies), the study was designed to take a snapshot of an evolutionary vision of the plastics sector. The aim is to move from an approach that focuses only on plastic waste management to a model that is able to maximise the possible benefits of technological innovation in the three phases identified - input, product and process innovation, and end-of-use and new life).

In particular, the document highlights that Italian bioplastics represent around a third of the entire sector at the EU level. This competitive advantage stems from the fact that for once Italy took action ahead of the other European states. As early as 2012, Italy actually made it obligatory to provide biodegradable and compostable carrier bags, and from 2018 it required ultralight bags to be produced exclusively from compostable bioplastic.

The report notes that bioplastics have performed better than the plastics sector over the last five years, showing higher growth rates and thereby increasing their importance in the sector. During the period 2016-2020, the number of people employed in bioplastics grew by 27.2% compared with 17.3% in the plastics sector overall, with a 23.0% increase in the number of companies compared with a decrease of 27.8% in the plastics sector as a whole.

It is therefore no coincidence that The European House – Ambrosetti, among the seven lines of action it identified to increase circularity in the Italian plastics sector, included support for growth of the Italian bioplastics sector and increasing organic recycling for compostable plastics.

Overall, Italian plastics generated turnover of €45.8 billion in 2020, with added value of €12.7 billion and €19.9 billion in exports. All of these values are around 5% of the results of the manufacturing sector as a whole. The number of people employed in the sector is around 180,000.

Significantly, the plastics recovery phase in Italy is worth more than twice the European average compared with the total value of the sector (2.1% compared with 0.9%). In the last five years it has been the most dynamic component (+40% in turnover and 72% in added value compared with 2016).

Finally, there is considerable scope to increase the circularity rate, provided appropriate courses of action are taken. The plastics sector as a whole can reduce the total waste generated (-22.7% by 2030, compared with a scenario without any corrective action) and increase the recovery of plastics. In fact, the complementary action of mechanical and chemical recycling could see Italy recycling 61.6% of plastic waste by 2030 compared with 42.3% in 2020, bringing landfill disposal to below 10% a full five years ahead of the European target.

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