The European bioeconomy is worth two trillion euros and employs over 22 million people. In addition, for every one thousand tons of bioplastics, 60 new jobs can be created. What are the dynamics in this sector?
The bioplastic supply chain is very complex. Bioplastics are made up of many components. We have tried to break down the products and create new technologies for each individual component. Unlike oil, from which it is possible to obtain a fixed amount of hydrocarbons, for bioplastics there are many types of intermediate components that require different technologies. Various raw materials can be used to create bioplastics, such as first- and second-generation sugars that can be extracted from a range of plants. To do that, we have to carry out further studies into our natural resources because our knowledge is currently limited to just a few crops that are grown on a large-scale.
You have said that, "the future is in the connection between businesses and the land, between industry and agriculture". What does this mean?
The bioeconomy is intimately linked to the land. You need to look at the sustainability of the area to come up with a strategy. For example, it is important to know how much space an area has in which you want to build a factory. This is exactly what we did at Matrica, in Sardinia. We analyzed the mistakes that had been made in the past, the difficulties that we encountered in an area that had been torn apart for years. It was for this reason that they needed more effort and support to be able to start again. Because heritage is important.
Let’s go back to Matrica, an example of using local crops, such as thistles, that do not compete with food crops.
It’s not only the thistle in Sardinia that doesn’t compete with food crops, but Matrica also gives new life to degraded land, one that is full of rocks, land that would otherwise not be cultivated as it’s economically unsustainable.
This looks like an interesting way forward. Are you able to outline the dilemma between energy crops and food crops and Novamont's position on this?
A fundamental need of the bioeconomy is that the soil, water and air must not be damaged in any way, because these represent the natural resources on which it is based. Destroying these resources means destroying the economy itself. We need to focus on supply chains that respect the sustainability of the land. Only then is biomass sustainable.
The bioeconomy is a way to regenerate the land, and efficiently use the available resources. You can’t apply the oil production chain to the production of biomass or you'll risk anomalies, as we've seen with the expropriation of land with the small-scale farmers in Africa. The bioeconomy can not be like this. There can be no competition with food crops, just synergy.
What other raw materials are you exploring for the bioplastics of the future?
We are also assessing food waste. There are products and materials that are currently not worth exploiting but that, with innovative technologies, research, and ethics together with transparency, legality and other key concepts of the bioeconomy, can also become economically sustainable.
Speaking of waste, an example that closely concerns you is Milan, a city that has managed to reach, in just a short space of time, 90 kilograms of organic waste collected per capita, thanks in part to the biodegradable bags that your company is producing.
Organic waste is a real masterpiece. The engineers who implemented the separate waste collection in San Francisco, one of the most advanced cities in this field, were stunned by the results and the plants. Milan is a European and global example of which we should be proud, and an important calling card for Expo Milano 2015. Novamont’s biodegradable shopping bag is a symbol. This bag frees us from the problem of pollution caused by old-style plastic bags and helps Italy eliminate organic waste from landfill.
In Italy, the use of bioplastics for shopping carrier bags is well-known, but it would be interesting to know what uses you are proposing for the food industry.
We have looked to develop applications that are still linked to organic waste, eliminating any possible problems. There is a part dedicated to catering. We’ve been able to create materials for injection molding, such as the rigid materials used for cutlery, that can also be used for printing smartphone packaging. These materials have a greater mechanical strength and at a higher temperature than polystyrene, but are able to biodegrade through normal composting.
For food packaging, we are able to offer a wide range of biodegradable transparent film, which can have a number of different uses: from food packaging to sheeting for mulching. Unfortunately, while these new products are an important reality, it’s difficult to reach the market via the intermediaries, which makes distribution difficult.
2015 is a pivotal year for sustainability. For a start, there is Expo Milano 2015.
The Expo needs to be the impetus for Italy to become the country we want it to be. I would like it to be represented as a new model for development. We need to bring together the best of our country because maintaining the status quo makes no sense. Italy must put sustainability and efficiency at the center, with food as a key element, as well as legality and transparency. New quality standards should emerge from Expo.
You are also president of Terna and the Kyoto Club. What do you expect from the UN climate conference in Paris?
There is a need to increase targets on reducing CO2 because we now need to move quickly, we need companies to be inspired by new models that create jobs. I hope that, through the Kyoto Club, it will be possible to bring new life to this field and reduce our impact on the climate.