Milan Achieves World-class Separate Food Waste Collection

Kat Heinrich

23 July 2017

Milan is a densely populated city home to 1.3 million inhabitants with a high performing household food waste collection program that covers the whole city.

About 140,000 tonnes of food waste (including fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and other organics) is separately collected from households and businesses for resource recovery. Most of the collected food waste (about 70%) is sourced from households. This equates to about 1.3 kg of food waste per person per week, which is well above levels of recycling in most cities around the World. Furthermore, the contamination rate of the collected food waste is low – at 5%.

So how did the city achieve these results? I interviewed Cristina Fusco from Azienda Milanese Servizi Ambientali (AMSA), who is responsible for waste programs and services to the city, to find out the key drivers behind these results.

Milan’s food waste recycling system.

Photograph supplied by AMSA

The Collection System

Milan provides 120-litre wheelie bins on loan to its citizens for free. These bins are presented on the kerbside for collection twice a week from households and daily from businesses (e.g. bars and restaurants). Smaller bins (35 litres) are also available by request by families living in single dwellings. Citizens are also provided with a ventilated kitchen basket (approx 7 litres) to dispose of their food scraps in the kitchen. However, to use the system, every family needs to purchase compostable bags from retailers or reuse shopping bags.

Rules and regulations set by the Municipality and a proper enforcement system, including inspections and fees for non-compliance are necessary for the good performance of the program.

– Cristina Fusco, responsible for Project and Planning Service at AMSA.

Food Waste Legislation & Regulations

According to Cristina, the success of the program is due to rules and regulations set by the Municipality together with proper enforcement.

Italy has national legislation in place whereby food waste is prohibited from landfill. Furthermore, they have a goal of recycling 65% of municipal solid waste, and to achieve this food waste collection programs need to be enforced.

Against this legislative backdrop, the City of Milan has regulations in place to impose a separate collection of food waste by all households and commercial activities. This includes requirements within the municipal legislation that specifies the method and equipment for separate collection.

Cristina cites a few key elements of this legislation:

  • Fractions that are produced by public and private canteen, civilian and military, restaurants must be separately collected in the areas where markets are run and at commercial establishments that produce putrescent organic waste.
  • Methods and times for the implementation of a separate organic waste collection are defined in a special ordinance.
  • Organic materials must be handed over to special bags or rigid containers located in suitable spaces specially located at the utilities.
  • Such containers shall not allow the release of smelling fumes and putrescible materials.
  • The rigid containers must be cleaned and disinfected weekly by the same users

The City also has controls in place to manage the quality of the material collected via the food recycling stream to ensure it isn’t contaminated with unsuitable items.  Households and businesses may be issued to a 50 Euro fine for non-conformity to these controls or if they present their bin for collection at the wrong time. This is enforced by 20 agents that are tasked with inspecting the quality of the material in the bins and bags prior to collection. About 50,000 fines are issued each year.

In the case of multi-unit dwellings, where 80% of Milan’s residents live, citizens share bins with their neighbours. If contamination is found in these shared bins then a fine will be issued to the building and is payable by all the residents, regardless of the perpetrator. This measure provides a social pressure on residents to correctly use the system.

Milan with the plan for separate collection of organic waste was able to;

  • Reach European goals for recycling
  • Recover the organic fraction of MSW, collecting 100kg/hh/year
  • Contribute to a circular economy with new employment opportunities and developing innovation and the use of new products such as compostable bags

Image sourced from AMSA

Introducing the Program and Community Acceptance

Cristina says there wasn’t any community resistance to the introduction of the legislation for separate collection of food waste. Rather, it is well accepted and citizens actively participate in the program, as demonstrated by the high quality and abundant quantity of food waste collected. She mentions that having a packaging recycling system already in place was of great help. Milanesi (inhabitants of Milan) were used to doing separate collections at home and so adding food waste as a separate collection was accepted very fast.

Milanesi (inhabitants of Milan) are used to do proper separate collection at home and adding food waste separate collection was accepted very fast.”

– Cristina Fusco, responsible for Project and Planning Service at ASMA

Another key factor behind the successful introduction of the program was an extensive communications campaign by Amsa and the Municipality of Milan. Letters were sent to all the citizens about the program, food waste containers were delivered with leaflets and posters, and information was distributed via an app for smartphones, the AMSA website, community meetings and a toll-free number 24/7. These materials were translated into multiple languages so that immigrants and non-Italian speakers could understand. Furthermore, specific information about the food waste program was incorporated in dedicated school programs for students of all ages from kindergarten to University.

The City also has free compost giveaway days to raise awareness of the value of recycling food waste.

Beyond Food Waste

Milan’s experience shows that it is possible for cities to develop highly successful food waste recycling program. Like San Francisco, a key driver behind the success of the program was legislation that mandates separation of food waste with fines for non-compliance. Also, again like San Francisco, the city provides its residents and businesses with a convenient kerbside collection that was introduced with a well-executed communications campaign to make citizens aware of the separate food waste collection and how to use it.

However, what is really interesting to me is how Milan made this system work so effectively in a high-density environment. In some cities, shared bins create a challenge for achieving good recycling levels. On the converse, Milan applies fines to the whole building for contamination of shared bins, and through this leverages social dynamics (neighbours applying pressure on one another to use the system correctly) to encourage good behaviour.

One factor that makes Milan unique -enabling this social dynamic to occur – is that most apartments have communal space that is dedicated to waste management enabling residents to share the bins. This system may be harder to replicate in countries – such as the Netherlands – that don’t have this space available and instead rely on street-based bins.

With less than 10% of food waste remaining in the residual stream, Milan is truly a World class example of separate food waste collection.

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