Europe’s soil is in danger from salinity, compaction, chemical pollution, acidification, non-biodegradable substances, and nutrient depletion — endangering the food production and carbon storage that keep the bloc, and planet, going ‘round.
To stop the downward spiral, the EU will need to overhaul its economy to restore its ecosystem and protect the health of its soil.
The circular bioeconomy can accelerate sustainable innovation, by regenerating resources and marginal and desert lands, and transforming peripheral areas into centers for innovation.
EU environment ministers acknowledged the urgency of the problem last month, calling to quicken the shift to a circular economy.
Yet waste collection remains a challenge for Europe, with valuable resources lost because of poor consumer awareness, technological barriers and design complexities, the European Environment Agency reported in October.
Italy’s bioplastics and biochemicals producer Novamont is helping overcome these obstacles. Its products — biodegradable and compostable plastics; biolubricants and greases; and cosmetic ingredients made from renewable raw materials — can be reabsorbed into the soil either directly or as compost, which helps restore soil.
How can a green economy be achieved?
We need a radical change in mentality, to redesign our economic system and prioritize circular production and products.
This is to everyone’s benefit: research shows that a circular economy would generate $26 trillion in revenue, create 65 million jobs by 2030, and avoid 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution, according to the 2018 New Climate Economy report.
But policy alone won’t get us there; we must learn to live within our natural means and rethink the old habits. That means favoring short and sustainable food supply chains, which will strengthen local networks between farms and cities.
Education and public information is key. If everyone knew that the soil that provides their food is not renewable, it would be easier to develop an individual and collective responsibility.
Land use is a more difficult sector to decarbonize. How does it contribute to climate change?
Soil is not renewable, it takes over 2,000 years to form 10 centimeters of ground. But our life depends on soil — it’s the starting point for food production, and it stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
However, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 percent of our soil is now degraded and harmed by chemical pollution, acidification, nutrient depletion and other problems.
Soil degradation is a significant environmental problem throughout Europe, especially in the Mediterranean. According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, 20 percent of the EU surface is eroding at a speed of 10 tons per hectare per year. Additionally, 1,000 square kilometers of productive land is lost every year to waterproof materials such as buildings. But Europe lacks a policy to preserve its soil.
How can soil be regenerated to help limit climate change?
Globally, we need much more organic matter, and properly separating organic waste during waste collection would provide that.
A new initiative similar to the “4 per 1,000” initiative launched at the 2015 Paris climate summit — which aims to increase the carbon stored in soil every year — would improve fertility while lowering emissions.
This is essential and urgent, especially in areas that lack organic matter. We also need to standardize soil analysis and accelerate a global monitoring system to cover the knowledge gaps and create reliable data.
Otherwise, the combined effects of climate change and soil degradation could reduce agricultural production by half in certain arid areas in the next 30 years.
In Europe, and in Italy, we need a policy to preserve soil, promote the responsible use of agricultural land, and create supply chains based on the sustainable use of biomass and addition of organic matter.
What other benefits does a circular bioeconomy bring?
It must start from the regeneration and responsible use of land. We need to make more with less. To do that, we need to build bridges between disciplines and sectors, turning peripheral areas into innovation hubs.
For example, abandoned and uncultivated or degraded areas in Europe could be regenerated by growing non-irrigated crops, which would restore the soil and create new income opportunities for farmers.
We can then develop new technologies and biorefinery processes using the raw materials available on this regenerated land.
But to get there, we need a broad cultural change, especially in metropolitan hubs.
Change in cities can help transform food consumption, waste, packaging, the quality and amount of disposable products used, the way organic and industrial waste is collected and treated, and recycling.
Urban organic waste, sludge and phosphates from wastewater or animal fertilizer could be recycled into natural fertilizers, which would increase the organic matter in soil.
How do Novamont’s products help create a circular bioeconomy?
Today, only two percent of plastic packaging worldwide is reused in a similar way, and only 12 percent is down-cycled. The production and consumption system must become circular so that we consume as few resources as possible, use those resources wisely and ensure that they can be reused.
Renewable products that can biodegrade — such as bioplastics, biolubricants and bioherbicides — help to avoid the build-up of unnatural substances and enrich the ecosystem.
This preserves the quality of water and soil and makes regeneration an integral part of the production process. Biodegradable and compostable products are not the ultimate answer to pollution, but they help reduce pollution.
This would reduce the accumulation of non-biodegradable substances in soil and maximize the recovery of the organic substance, which is vital to regenerating soil and limiting emissions.
Multilayer-thin packaging, for example, is hard to recycle and often dirty from food. If it were made from compostable bioplastics, and accompanied by a network of composting plants, that packaging could be collected with food waste.
This would make the traditional stream of plastic waste substantially cleaner, and therefore easier and more valuable to recycle, because contaminated plastic is less valuable for recyclers.
Published on politico.eu