It is hard to say no to the boss. It can be damaging, even detrimental to your career — especially if it is about the boss’ number one project, and when the project is very much part of the Boss personal identity, and commitment. But Fabrizio Calenti simply did not believe. He thought the idea was very nice, but the difficulties so obvious, and the chance of success so slim, that he himself was firmly against the idea to commit the company to undertake the ECONYL® journey.
His boss, Giulio Bonazzi, had however such a firm and clear vision of what was of strategic importance to the company that he decided anyhow to launch the project, and despite opposition from one of this key executives, he decided to ask him — and nobody else — to lead it.
It was a project that had virtually no precedence: to create a manufacturing system and facility to regenerate waste, otherwise destined for landfill or incineration, into first-grade textile fibers. Then sell it and than take it back at the end of its life-cycle to regenerate it again. And again. And again …
»In our industry, where the fight for margins is really intense, such an idea — to create a whole new economic model, to step out of the well-trodden paths, to abandon almost every principle the industry abides by — is just too risky. At least it seemed too risky to me.«
This was almost a decade ago, when the words »sustainability« and »circular economy« were far from the buzzwords they are today.
»Look at it as a challenge«
The boss pressed on and the adventure started. »It started without me, and it was as complicated as I figured out it had to be, if not worse. And I was glad it was not my problem,« Mr. Calenti remembers. »I could sleep well, knowing it is not my problem.«
Because of the radically new underlying principle there were no machines, no specifications, no established processes. There was even no raw material. »We had to invent literally everything.«
Yet the boss did not relent on and Mr. Calenti conceded that this might just be an interesting challenge. So he accepted the task at hand and moved full steam ahead despite uncertainty of the future.
»The system then was still presenting a lot of problems, and very few rewards. It was showing its potential, sure, but there were so many problems — from the raw material procurement that was totally unreliable to operational performance ... Through all the trials and tribulations we experienced during this period, I regained a sense of optimism after witnessing something in the plan one day: the genuine interest and passion the project had created within the company — across all levels. So I assembled a team I thought was up to the challenge and I was immediately surprised by the energy, the enthusiasm and the creativity the team displayed day in and day out. Every week we encountered a wall that we thought we could not break — and every week … we broke it. Every week I could proudly share with my Boss how we made it, and my Boss was, and still is, the person who could better and faster than anybody else get the full meaning of each and every step of the project.«
Economy and industry was — and usually still is — linear. “Take, make, dispose” industrial processes are so deeply ingrained in our minds that it is hard to see that it is not the only possible way to do it. But in light of recent global development it is becoming more and more clear that it has to be abandoned: the linear processes deplete finite reserves to create products that end up as waste in landfills or in incinerators — and eventually in our stomachs and lungs (after it wreaks havoc in the environment).
On the other hand, the circular concept heavily borrows from the nature. Basically it considers that our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle: hence the circle, the closed loop. To put it bluntly: there is no such thing as waste.
Winning over hearts and minds
Even today, when everybody at least talks about environment protection, and the word »sustainability« is becoming common, there is a gaping lack of awareness on the issue waste are causing in today’s society. The plant Bonazzi envisioned and Calenti and his team brought to reality is proactively tackling the issue of waste recovery and regeneration. In 2010, the US and EU produced nearly 15 million tons of textile waste, 1 million tons of which was Nylon 6 waste — the material Aquafil is regenerating with the ECONYL Regeneration System. Fish nets, carpet, swimwear, sportswear, and more are reclaimed around the world to be processed through the regeneration system.
When the nets near the end of their life-cycle, they are stripped of steel parts, buoys and anti-growth chemicals and become just what Calenti and his team need: the raw material for new, regenerated nylon. »This is an example of a new paradigm that is slowly but surely taking over: your business partners can be — at least on a first glance — anybody. We don’t produce fishing nets, we don’t sell anything to fisheries, yet they are a crucial part of our business. Because what they — and most people — still regard as waste, is actually a resource.”
Healthy Seas Initiative
Most major corporations make it a point to give back to the community in one way or another. Environmental initiatives sponsored by industry are common, and Aquafil– the company that owns the plant Calenti manages — is no exception. Except …
Their project is called Healthy Seas Initiative, dedicated to hunting down and extracting ghost nets from the oceans. Yet it has another goal: it needs to be self-sustainable. No government subsidies, no handouts, no nothing. Healthy Seas needs to be able to survive on its ow as it strives to become a textbook example of how a good cause (cleaning the oceans) becomes viable (by regenerating the material and entering it back into the sustainable economy circle).
Intangible values, tangible benefits
That is the paradigm shift: there is no waste, only resources. Regenerating resources can be beneficial not just for the environment, but the economy . »Those are the intangible values that more and more stakeholders are interested in. There are benefits spillover that can generate profits. The customers are more and more aware of the environmental issues and are changing their preferences. If you don’t get it, they will lock you out and forget about you.« More and more brands are following their customers and are actively seeking out suppliers that create sustainable products and are engaging in circular economy. »It is a wave. Ride it — or be swept by it.«
The concept of regeneration is still new and opportunity is around every corner.
»Our main investment and focus right now is creating a web of sustainability-dedicated brands and companies, universities, research institutes and designers to create products with basically infinite lifetime,« explains Calenti. »We are striving to ease the extraction of regenerable materials from products — for example, finding a way to separate nylon fluff in carpets from the base more efficiently — and especially to design things that can re-enter the circle over and over and over again. Circular economy is not a buzzword. It is here,« Calenti ads with a smile.
Fabrizio Calenti is a senior manager of Aquafil group and is responsible for the plant that produces ECONYL® regenerated nylon fibers. In 2014 the company will produce over 20.000 tons of regenerated, closed-loop fibers from the things formerly known as waste.