In Milan, almost 60 percent of the waste is differentiated for recycling. That makes the city one of the frontrunners in Europe, but there’s still some way to go with 800,000 visitors coming every year. 

Plastic pollution and waste management has become important topics in international politics, and all over the world coloured bins are provided to separate waste. In Milan, the citizens are used to the practice, having two types of bags and three different containers for their waste. 2.4 million people live in the city and 59.9 percent of their waste is differentiated for recycling. In 2014, the EU member states decided to recycle at least half of all municipal solid waste in 2020, and Italy decided a target of 65 to be reached by law in 2016.

But even though Italy didn’t reach the goals for recycling, managing waste in Milan is still going strong. 

“Milan is still doing good, especially for biowaste, and considering the fact it is a pretty big city where waste collection is generally more complicated to get right. When it comes to biowaste, they collect about 85% of it, which is one of the highest capture rates among European cities, says Jean-Benoît Bel, senior project manager at the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and Sustainable Resource Management.

He adds, that most of the waste are from households and restaurants primarily. Regions for Recycling have been using Milan as an example on good practice since 2014 because of the success with door-to-door separate collecting system.

“What did Milan well is a combination of instruments that was effective, such as intensive communication, providing pre-collection equipment adapted to the different types of housings, a good quality of the collection service, and an obligation of separate collection along with controls and fines for impurities or noncompliance, made possible by introducing transparent collection bags for residual waste,” says Jean-Benoît Bel.

Even though there are different bins for different types of waste, it’s the door-to-door separate collecting system, Milan is known for. People in Milan are used to manage several bags and containers while city visitors aren’t. Photo: Liv Østerstrand

Tourists demands new approaches

While the Milanese people know, that they need to collect their waste in clear bags and that inspectors can give them a fine from €50 for not doing things correctly, it’s much more difficult with people coming to the metropole. More than 800,000 visitors come to Milan every year, and they are not necessarily used to the same system.

“Cultural and Economical differences play a role. The economic situation affects the waste management, and in some countries, the focus is simply not on waste management,” says Erneszt Kovács, project manager on Urban Strategies for Waste Management in Tourist Cities. 

But since recycling and waste management in general are becoming more present in people’s minds, more people are aware that it generally has a more positive impact in comparison to other options such as incineration and landfilling, Jean-Benoît Bel says. 

The environmental benefits are unquestionable, and production of recycled materials improve material efficiency and make countries less dependent on importing materials from other countries, but there’s still a long way to go. 

“It is however important to remember that the priority should be to reduce waste generation as much as possible, and to promote the reuse of products over recycling,” says Jean-Benoît Bel.

Research for results

The project Urban Waste – Urban Strategies for Waste Management in Tourist Cities is an European project by a consortium consisting of 27 partners from 12 different countries. The reason is the negative impacts from tourism such as high levels of unsustainable resource consumption and – waste production. According to project manager Erneszt Kovacs, the project is ground-breaking, because no one else is looking into what tourists do with their trash when on vacation.

“Our studies have found, that people in general would like to maintain their habits from home. But at the same time, they won’t spend time on how it’s done locally. Tourists have the money, but tourism also comes with a range of consequences,” he says. 

The project doesn’t only look at the behaviour of the tourists, but also involves local stakeholders such as tourist companies and waste management companies. And the research is especially important now, because even though handling waste has been an increasing problem in big cities for centuries, people are now more aware than ever. 

“This boom in public involvement and attention is happening now, because the problem has become visible. The more single-use plastic and materials we use, the more the public gets involved. Today, the pollution is visible even for those who weren’t concerned before,” Erneszt Kovács says and adds: 

“But even though people have all the good intentions, there’s still some way to go to see actual changes in people’s behaviour.”