It is 5 AM and Giulio Bonazzi’s alarm clock goes off in his bedroom in Verona. He is used to waking up early to prepare for the day and feed the chickens he raises with his wife. Not something you would expect from a CEO of a multinational company, but there is nothing ordinary about Bonazzi. At 8 AM he is usually at his desk in Aquafil, which is located in beautiful Arco di Trento near Garda Lake, an hour drive from Verona. This is the reason he reads local Trentino morning papers. He has been working in the family business since he was 24, but no project was harder or more rewarding than creating the ingredient brand ECONYL®. Nylon, contained in waste such as carpets, clothing and fishing nets, is transformed into regenerated raw material without any loss of quality through the ECONYL Regeneration System. Well-known brands like Adidas, Arena, La Perla, Triumph, and many others use it for swimwear and lingerie while Desso and Interface are two major carpet manufacturers that design their carpets with it.
“I never thought of quitting. Never. Even though the investment was larger than planned and sometimes the obstacles were inconceivable,” he explains about the start of ECONYL as he arrives in his Aquafil office. “In the most difficult moments we focused on what needed adapting. Even now, after 7 years, the project is evolving on a daily basis, giving us great opportunities as we go along.”
A need to change
When you discuss with people in the industry who are in charge of the sustainability projects, they will tell you that management buy-in is essential. Usually they invest a lot of effort to pitch these projects to the C-suite, but for ECONYL that was not the case since the push for this kind of material came from the top-down. “We are a B2B company and our customers were searching for a product that was sustainable so they could make sustainable products for the final consumer,” admits Bonazzi. “To develop the product we needed to innovate the process, which was a great challenge.«
He lives sustainable and is all too aware of the concerns related to sustainability. He drives a hybrid BMW instead of a flashy Maserati because of its comforting CO2 impact. “Sustainability has become an essential part of my life — it is becoming a mania, because you check what you are throwing away, you try to better separate waste, you are very curious.” Realizing that a lot of companies are being sustainable as a part of a greenwashing strategy, he wanted to convey his ingenious thoughts on sustainability to the employees also.
The first generation of ECONYL that included at least 70% of pre-consumer waste was called ECONYL 70 and was introduced in 2007. The metamorphosis started from the inside out: the employee culture in Aquafil aspired to be more sustainable, to pollute less, to save energy and to be utmost efficient. So in 2008 they formalized this process and reorganized into an Energy and Recycling business unit. “We wanted to measure how well we are performing.”
Without a great team there would be no ECONYL
If you ask Bonazzi’s coworkers, they say ECONYL was his idea. But then you confront Giulio Bonazzi about it, he gives you a surprising answer giving credit back to them saying without a wonderful management team and enthusiastic people working for the ECONYL brand, the initial challenges would be hard to resolve. “My most important job is to try to build the best team and the best environment for our people to work inside the company. If something goes wrong it is because I was not able to choose, motivate or let people express their talents and performance,” says Bonazzi as he reveals his truly humble side.
A failed project as a groundwork for ECONYL
There is a saying that everybody is a general after a battle. It is easy to look back and know what could have been done better. But sometimes a monstrous mistake can pay back later. At the end of last century, Aquafil wanted to produce its own raw material through a normal production system and lost an incredible amount of money. “I woke up much earlier than 5 AM at that time,” jokes Bonazzi. But years later the technology that was developed then is the foundation the ECONYL Regeneration System today. “If we had not made that mistake, we would not have the team of experts and know-how to build ECONYL,” adds Bonazzi.
3 continents, 15 plants, 1 initiative
In 2014, Aquafil will produce 20,000 tons of regenerated caprolactam which will be transformed into yarn. The plan is to reclaim close to 26,000 tons of pre- and post-consumer waste this year. All this is made possible because of 15 plants in Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, UK, USA, Thailand and China. “It is very rare that during one week I don’t take a least one flight going back and forth to these locations,” says an energetic Bonazzi who travels about 50% of the time and admits that it was easier in his 20s, but is still keeping up. “I travel to visit suppliers, because our most strategic suppliers are in Germany, Holland, Belgium, USA or China and I visit our operations that are spread all over the world.”
Then there is the Healthy Seas Initiative that aims at cleaning the seas from waste, particularly abandoned fish nets, to regenerate them into ECONYL nylon yarn. Aquafil was one of the founding companies and Bonazzi says it is not just to find raw material but also because marine pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems today. “The oceans and seas are the future, or at least one of the pillars of our nutrition for the future, so we have to preserve them and keep them clean. Through Healthy Seas we create awareness, which means it is easier for us to collect other fish nets and not only those targeted by Healthy Seas,” says Bonazzi openly.
67% CEOs: business is not doing enough to tackle sustainability challenges
Recently ECONYL’s story and its circular economy practice was presented at Sustainable Brands London. It was there that The Consumer Study: From Marketing to Mattering (PDF) was presented by Accenture and Havas Media RE:PURPOSE. Strikingly, the research conducted among 100 CEOs showed that 67% say businesses are generally not doing enough to tackle sustainability challenges. Bonazzi also realizes that there is a lot of greenwashing, so he promotes transparency within Aquafil, who diligently publishes their sustainability report on its website. “We act more than we talk,” smiles Bonazzi. “We are establishing the methodology to calculate lifecycle assessment for environmental product declarations which are made to avoid greenwashing.”
High investments are paying off
Initially, four years and 20 million Euro were spent on the research, development, design and building of the ECONYL chemical system and depolymerization plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia — a huge investment that Bonazzi believes is showing great return, although its challenges were immensely underestimated. “Overall we are very satisfied. I think our future is highly dependent on ECONYL, but we are still at a very initial stage of this venture,” explains Bonazzi. “I believe we are generally better than our competitors and pioneering methods for sustainable manufacturing. ECONYL is the differentiator and without it we would not be as we are today.”
Getting the material is harder than selling the ECONYL product
“The hard part is to get enough suitable raw material. The more we find the more we produce. Believe me, it is very easy to sell ECONYL. It sells itself,” Bonazzi states boldly. An exciting challenge for Aquafil is to build the proper supply chain and sustainable technology to produce ECONYL. And they are not alone. Cooperation is taking place with universities, customers, teams of other companies and with employees that have demonstrated innovative technological breakthroughs over the past several years while trying to find solutions to the problems at hand.
The future lies in reengineering
One of the mission statements of the company is “To play a leading role in new models for sustainable development in order to secure the future of company growth and future generations.” Bonazzi lives it each day. “The main future challenge for ECONYL is to change the waste of tomorrow,” says Bonazzi while he picks produce in his vegetable garden for dinner after a long day at work. “If carpets, swimwear, and fish nets are reengineered for an easier regeneration we can increase the share of waste to regenerate and lower the share of the waste being disposed or incinerated. Imagine!”