When we think of recycling, we tend to picture it as a private habit or a commitment we should all make to do our part for the environment. We rarely think of recycling as an industry. And yet it is, or rather, recycling spans across several industries and it can help the economy as much as it helps the planet. It is not only about saving resources, it is also about generating income, creating jobs, and expanding wealth. Therefore, when we hear that a Country is virtuous about recycling we should not assume this to refer exclusively to the people’s average attitude to waste management at home, but also consider the recycling industry as a whole. Italy’s case is emblematic in this sense: while not a pioneer in home-recycling laws and practices, Italy is a European leader in industrial wood recycling, which saves millions of tons of CO2 emissions from being released into the atmosphere and generates billions in economic impact on the nation’s GDP.
Wood recycling in Italy: everybody wins
Wood scarcity is a pressing issue in Europe. In Germany, raw materials are running so low that the whole construction industry is facing a steep rise in prices. Wood recycling is the perfect answer to this, as it has been proven by the outstanding results achieved by Rilegno, a wood recycling consortium that collected and recycled almost 2 million tons of wood in Italy last year, saving just as much CO2, generating an economic impact of almost 2 billion Euros and creating over 10.000 jobs. This is a rare case in which the concept of a circular economy is successfully applied on a large scale, benefitting the economy and the environment at the same time.
From packaging to furniture
Wood’s lifecycle has different stages, depending on the original use for which it is sourced. Wood from industrial packaging materials and pallets, for instance, is particularly easy to recycle for use in the production of new furniture. Rilegno sourced this from construction and shipping companies, but it also worked with thousands of Italian cities to acquire old and broken wooden furniture, fruit and wine crates, and other types of wooden waste from municipal garbage collection enterprises. This allows Italian municipalities to dispense with the cost of repurposing wood, turning waste into revenue, and making the lifecycle of wood as a raw material virtually endless. This process is enacted by hundreds of private collection platforms in almost 5000 Italian cities, with 15 recycling plants.
The three stages of wood recycling
The specific nature of wood as a fiber-based material makes it easy to crush, shred, reduce its volume, and make it easier to reshape and repurpose. This is the first stage of wood recycling and it takes place in the collection platforms right after the wood is collected. The raw material that comes out of this process can then be shipped to the recycling plants in order to be processed. The third stage of wood recycling is the one we get to see and use daily. Most of it gets turned into chipboard, which is widely used by the furniture industry, but recycled wood can also be turned into pulp for paper mills, compost, or pallet blocks.
The perfect form of recycling
Wood is extremely easy to recycle and this industry has reached a level of proficiency that allows it to repurpose virtually any kind of wood, minimising waste and environmental impact and maximising the raw materials’ yield and, ultimately, the whole industry’s ROI. This is a textbook example of sustainability working efficiently and positively impacting the economy and the job market at every stage. Of course, this did not happen overnight: it took in-depth research, the designing of new machinery, and the ongoing refining of techniques, in order to diversify and increase the final yield and allow the lifecycle of recycled wood to extend as long as possible.