What the UK can learn from Italy’s compostable packaging EPR scheme

Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) Managing Director David Newman looks at how Italy’s new EPR scheme for compostable packaging will work and what lessons it can provide the UK as it revises its packaging EPR system

In 2011, Italian industries making compostable packaging established a trade association called Assobioplastiche that I headed until 2015. Its aims were multiple – to grow the market for compostables being the primary, but also to eliminate from the market the scourge of fake compostables, and especially fake biodegradables.

Much of this has been achieved with the virtual disappearance of oxodegradable plastics from the Italian market. Since the very beginning, the association promoted the strategic role compostables have to play in ensuring the clean collection and treatment of food waste and not as a substitute for plastic packaging per se.

Over the last ten years the Italian Government has developed a clear legal framework for compostable plastics.

David NewmanThe final step of this policy was the 2012 ban on single-use carrier bags with an exemption for compostable bags that could be then reused as food waste bin liners. The law was extended, according to the EU lightweight carrier bag directive, to fruit and vegetable produce bags, to complete the legislative action on bags in Italy.

The end game of the association, however, was to create a legally-recognised body to manage the environmental contributions paid by compostable producers into the national packaging waste extended producer responsibility (EPR) programme (a vague equivalent to the Packaging recovery Notes (PRNs) paid in the UK).

Today, with around 100,000 tonnes of compostable packaging consumed in Italy, those contributions amount to around £20 million a year. Currently, they are paid by producers into the national consortium responsible for plastic packaging, without any benefit or recognition that compostable packaging is recovered and recycled through anaerobic digestion (AD) and composting, to which, until now, not a penny of those contributions has been paid.

In December 2018 (after years of study and negotiation) the statutes for the national compostable packaging consortium known as BIOREPACK were submitted for approval by the Minister of Environment. In May 2020, the Minister announced his approval of those statutes and therefore the legal constitution of this new consortium. It will start its activities as soon as the Statute is published in the Official Gazette.

This consortium will sit within the body governing Italian packaging waste EPR known as CONAI, which includes CIAL (aluminium) RICREA (steel containers), COMIECO (paper), RILEGNO (wood), COREPLA (plastics) and COREVE (glass). This is an industry-run body that has government representation on the Board and has the role of ensuring compliance with government/EU targets on the management and recovery of packaging waste streams. Packaging placed onto the Italian market in 2019 amounted to around 13 million tonnes of which some nine million are recovered for recycling or energy recovery.

Total income to the CONAI bodies from producers and the obligated value chain of the packaging sector varies according to market conditions, but usually stands at around €800-€900 million per annum. BIOREPACK therefore will constitute a small part of this total value, 2.5 per cent in monetary terms whilst representing slightly less than one per cent in volume of Italian packaging. The contributions that the value chain pays now are the same as the plastic industry (€330/ton) but in the future BIOREPACK will be able to establish those with a certain autonomy and in discussion with organic recyclers.

BIOREPACK is constituted of four categories:

  • Producers and importers of compostable polymers certified EN13432;
  • Transformers that convert polymers into packaging materials in bioplastic, either as complete products or for example, as film;
  • Recyclers, notably composting and AD plants; and
  • Final users, notably retailers, distributors, fillers, supermarkets.
  • Each piece of the value chain producing or distributing packaging is legally obliged to pay their part of the environmental contribution to BIOREPACK that will then spend this to develop the system for the recovery of these materials.

Their activities will include:

  • Data management: monitoring the market, measuring the inputs into compost and AD plants. This work will be one of great benefit to the Italian Composting Consortium (CIC), the Italian compost and biogas association, who will have the substantial task of being those who certify the numbers.
  • Branding and labelling to promote the recognition of compostable packaging and, if necessary, to contrast fake products put onto the marketplace.
  • Communications and training, which includes information campaigns towards consumers and training to help, through bioplastics, to increase the quantity and quality of food waste collection and treatment.
  • Recycling and recovery, which means distributing contributions for the management of compostables at their end of life stage, when sent to composting and AD plants. Here they foresee agreements with councils, waste operators, and composting/AD plants to ensure these materials are correctly collected and treated and to help with costs for doing that.

The compostable market in Italy is destined to grow further with the use of compostables in new applications in food packaging. BIOREPACK will therefore be putting back into the system for collection and treatment, as well as monitoring, communications and information increasing funding. This will help ensure that what is sold onto the Italian market as compostable, is in reality compostable, and that those materials are effectively collected and treated in plants where their value is maximised as carriers for food waste to generate energy and to return to soil as organic carbon and nutrients.

As a comparison the current UK market for compostable packaging and other compostable materials in 2020 is around 20,000 tonnes. Under the current PRN system compostable packaging companies are paying circa £1-£1.5 million in PRNs, none of which is of any benefit at all to the industry itself nor to the recovery and treatment of these materials in AD and composting. 

BBIA hopes that the reform of the UK EPR system, foreseen in the coming year, uses the Italian model as a way of creating new added value for the overall benefit of councils, AD and composting operators, as well as the packaging industry as a whole. 

To understand more join us on our webinar on this subject on 16 June 2020 at 2.30pm UK time. You can register to attend on the BBIA website.