Setting the trend: Milan's recycling success

Milan may be the fashion capital of the world, but the Italian city has more than one string to its bow, boasting one of the highest recycling rates in Europe – and an organic waste collection available to all. Kate Dickinson asks if the Milan model could set a trend for UK cities to follow

Milan is a high-rise city; more than 80 per cent of its 1.3 million residents live in flats, and with over 7,500 residents per square kilometre, it is three times more densely populated than Rome, something compounded by the 700,000 ‘city users’ (commuters and tourists) who flock into the area every day. These facts present unique difficulties for waste collection and management in Milan; yet despite this, the city has managed to achieve a remarkable recycling rate. At 59.5 per cent separate waste collection (as of January-June 2018), Milan is tied with Vienna for the top spot among European cities with more than a million residents; it has also boasted a zero waste to landfill credential since 1997. London, in contrast, has been stagnating at around 33 per cent for the past five years. In a recent report on waste in the UK capital, ‘Wasting London’s Future’, the London Assembly Environment Committee stated that ‘cities like Milan put London’s recycling rates to shame’. So what is Milan doing right? And what can other cities learn?

Setting the trend: Milan's recycling success
A central waste collection courtyard must be present in all new buildings in Milan

The collection service in Milan certainly appears to be a smooth operation. In the upmarket area around Piazzale Giulio Cesare, with its wide, leafy streets in the shadow of the new CityLife development (a luxury residential and business district being designed by international architects Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind), residual waste in clear bags is moved from a central courtyard by a nominated resident or building manager to be neatly piled on the kerbside – that one resident can carry all the bags is indication of the remarkably small amount of waste produced by each building.

Each household in Milan has two collection days, with residual waste, glass and organic waste collected on one day, and plastic, metal, paper, cardboard and organic waste again on the second. While there is a system of coloured bins and bags for recyclate, a municipal law states that residual waste must be collected in clear bags, which has led to a two per cent reduction in residual waste. Having your waste on show certainly helps to discourage contamination, but a strict system of fines is even more effective.

Danilo Vismara, Head of Marketing at Amsa, which controls Milan’s waste management, explained: “We have a specific team of inspectors or controllers that go around the city... When a new service, for example the food waste collection, is launched, the controls are very light, because we need to wait for citizens to learn the new system. But after the first month enforcement becomes very strict”. Inspectors will fine residents – upwards of €50 – if waste is in the wrong bin or if the bins have been put out at the wrong time. And because so many Milanese live in flats, the honour system is important – if one person puts their waste in the wrong place, the entire building pays the price. Moreover, if a problem occurs in a number of households – such as people using the wrong bags in their food bins – Amsa will develop a targeted campaign to address this, sending out reminders to use compostable bags on a regular basis.

Setting the trend: Milan's recycling success
Waste neatly piled for collection outside flats in Gallaratese

Further out of the city centre, around a 20-minute drive to the more modest residential area of Gallaratese, waste from the high-rise flats appears equally well-organised, partly due to the law that
says all new buildings must have a dedicated space for waste to be collected, where it is managed by a nominated resident or building administrator. It is certainly a different story to the one unfolding around the UK, where flats have a significantly lower recycling rate than other households: in Barnet, 44,000 flats (30 per cent of all the households) only contributed one per cent of the borough’s 2016 recycling rate. The London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) has only recently developed a ‘flats taskforce’ to drive up the recycling rates in these areas – a 40 per cent rise is needed to meet the Mayor’s city-wide target of 65 per cent by 2030.

Organising Milan’s waste collection is made easier by the fact that Amsa, a public/private subsidiary of the A2A Group, has controlled the entire city’s service since 2008. From a central control room, the company is able to oversee Milan’s 24/7 kerbside collection teams and the wider fleet of compactors and street sweepers, with tracking software on all 1,300 vehicles revealing their exact location and the tonnage of waste on board. 25 per cent of these trucks are run on methane produced from the anaerobic digestion (AD) of the city’s organic waste, something Amsa is looking to extend to all the trucks in its fleet.

Organic waste collection is big business in Milan. Looking back to 2012, the percentage of the city’s waste separately collected for recycling had been hovering around the early thirties for over a
decade. The introduction of household food waste collections that year precipitated a meteoric increase in recycling, with 100 per cent coverage of the city by June 2014 leading to today’s 56 per cent recycling rate. A multi-channel communications campaign accompanied this, which, according to Vismara, was “the first programme launched in Milan with such a high level of contact”. Amsa distributed information to all households on a one-to-one basis, with trained officers handing out letters, posters and stickers. Also key to getting residents onside was a series of public meetings where citizens could direct questions to Amsa and the city council.

In partnership with Novamont, an Italian bioplastics firm, the city has integrated the use of compostable bags into the collection infrastructure, with Novamont’s Mater-Bi brand of plastic bags used across the city. Since January this year, it has also been mandatory for fresh produce to be sold in Mater-Bi bags, as a method of reducing the contamination of plastic in with food waste. The quality of waste is high: of the 142,000 tonnes of food waste sent to AD every year, around 5 per cent is non-compostable, less than the 10 per cent limit set by the AD facilities.

This article was taken from Issue 93

So where can Milan go from here? The city is beginning to introduce even more targeted approaches to try and further increase its recycling rate; a new experimental service for street markets, of which there are 94 in Milan, is asking vendors to separate their biowaste (mainly food and cut flowers) and packaging waste. Since October 2017, Amsa has distributed a free collection kit to more than 700 vendors, including a steel bag holder and compostable bags, along with information about the collections. Currently, around 50 per cent of the markets in Milan have access to this service, which collects plastic, cardboard and wood packaging alongside organic waste, and Amsa hopes to extend the service to all city markets by the end of 2018. Alongside this, the city is planning to introduce a number of initiatives to reduce food waste, including a municipal waste tax reduction for organisations that donate surplus food to charity.

Multiple statements by different UK organisations, including the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) and CIWM, have said that introducing food waste collections will be key to improving recycling rates. Moreover, the recent National Infrastructure Assessment found that a nationwide food waste service, combined with a 65 per cent municipal recycling rate, could reduce the UK’s residual treatment requirements by seven million tonnes. In reality, many UK local authorities are struggling with budget cuts, with some – most recently Wolverhampton and Barnet – considering scrapping their food waste services entirely in order to save money. It seems, however, that organic waste collections might hold the key if London and the wider UK are serious about replicating Milan’s recycling success.