Renewable Matter # 15 / March-April

A Map Enlargement is Required

by Roberto Coizet

Today, while politics seems to have lost any planning ability – often devolved to managers and businesses – gurus and new thinkers offer their vision for the future. Under these circumstances, the publishing industry must make some adjustments and integrate new tools. The example by Centro Materia Rinnovabile (Renewable Matter Centre) that carries out projects and environmental strategies for businesses – or whole industrial supply chains – offering support in the recovery of waste flows.

 

In a magazine devoting a whole section to policies, it behoves us, after slightly over two years from its inauguration, to consecrate an in-depth analysis to cultural policies carried out by those dealing with, in addition to many other initiatives, this very magazine.

It behoves us because it is not about a sort of self-presentation, but rather about openly illustrating our vision on the best ways to talk about sustainability effectively, as the 20s of the third millennium approach. 

There are some crucial questions. For example: can the publishing industry, both paper and digital, be the tool to guide us towards new economic, social and lifestyle scenarios, rapidly unfolding around the globe? To be more precise: the fact that the publishing industry can and must accompany these processes by providing the necessary cultural tools is out of the question. But can the latter – books, magazines, online publications – carry out a function whose scope is comparable to that covered by the publishing industry, say, 40 or 50 years ago? If we look at things from this perspective the answer is no. Books and magazines are losing their pervasive ability that they enjoyed up to a few years ago and no longer play that almost exclusive role that enabled them to be at the helm of key cultural turns. The change of opinions, social and economic behaviour, rests on various elements – often less pondered but with great penetration force – mixed with consumption patterns, trends and fashion, with job and money choices and with the persuasive ability that the gurus of our times may express. 

Second question. Who are the real gurus displaying the ability to aggregate behaviours and enabling ideas to evolve? Of course, intellectuals are still at the forefront, sometimes constrained by TV formats dwindling their narrative skills. But they are not alone. They must come to terms with other individuals, often more impromptu from the point of view of the thought structure, but equally able to launch new, effective and quick visions as well as to create fresh relations amongst social areas, widespread behaviours, symbols and values, revolutionizing the cultural scenario. Marc Zuckerberg, tapping emerging technologies, created Facebook before it was clear – even to himself – what cultural orientations this social network would have promoted.

And so the old classical analytical thinking – disciplinary and “vertical” – must come to grips with successful new thinking – antidisciplinary and “horizontal.” This is no easy task because there is often a time lag and while analytical thinking is still formulating a “discourse,” others – the new thoughts – have already become mass behaviour.

So, whoever the gurus may be, the effects of their reflections or their inventions spread in a way in which the written word can no longer represent the primary tool, but it only becomes a witness.

The third question is about the actors of change. How are the actors arranged in the cultural scenario? Who produces the most significant effects while envisaging new horizons and who, on the other hand loses his/her credibility in designing a new future?

Politics has lost its planning ability. From a social, economic, cultural and value point of view. In the industrialized countries there is a heated debate about what caused such phenomenon, but nobody denies that this has happened. Such fall dragged down – in a waterfall model – the credibility of public institutions. From local to national administrations up to universities and the whole school system which has not ceased to be the main educational point of reference, but it raises growing uncertainties and anxiety, as if it were slowly drifting away from what everybody senses as a “new reality.”

So, politics and institutions are weaker and weaker as “culture creators.” So who does that?

Here is the most disruptive and creative aspect of the last three decades: the new actors playing the leading roles in the cultural panorama are private companies. Small and medium enterprises, multinationals or short supply chain businesses, historical or start-up entities, corporations or social enterprises, and then more flexible and innovative structures intercepting the third sector, voluntary work, up to exchanges of activities without monetary transactions. All in all, an extremely varied panorama of individuals from the world of work who took, more or less knowingly, the initiative to steer the new social and cultural attractors.

It is a baffling role change. Businesses are the first to be bewildered, since in as little as two or three decades have realized they are in the limelight. Looking around, there is nobody else. And industrialists, entrepreneurs, managers would have never thought they would have to play a vicarious role compared to weak policies and a boundless social contract. They could have simply minded their own respective businesses, dealing with an increasingly messy and in-a-flux economy, without embarking on even more demanding challenges.

But, actually, there is no alternative. Each company must come to grips with a complex context where success will depend not only on the possibility to sell a product or a service, but above all on the ability to interpret trends mirroring new citizens/consumers’ needs. In other words, the market supply must embody a cultural model and those opting for the right one have a competitive advantage.

The panorama is varied and these new cultural protagonists enter the fray with a different attitude. Some businesses sniff the problem without smelling its essence and choose to disguise themselves: they embrace, not without some gaucheness, over- the-top values and adopt, for example green washing as a decoy to attract the more sensitive members of the public.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are intrinsically disruptive companies that are already where the transformation of lifestyle has occurred, because they were born there (for example the above-mentioned Facebook) and they gain from their position. These entities neither deny nor confirm the new role of companies: they simply conquer it in a way that is more similar to political success rather than the expansion of a company (actually Zuckerberg could convert effortlessly into a politician, relying on personal assets 20 times those of the current USA president).

Then there are more and more companies well aware of the change of scenario with a responsible mission to integrate business with culture. Such experiences developed in a transition, they have no qualms about complexities, and are used to integrate economic aspects with environmental and social ones. They are aware of difficulties and are no stranger to discussing leading values even at a board of directors.

The new role has been theorized for years, with different perspectives by leading authors, such as Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, Gunter Pauli or Pavan Sukhdev (all published in Italy by Edizioni Ambiente) who grasped the scope and growing responsibility of production and work in our future. Not only with these companies is it possible but it is necessary to work in order to build cultural perspectives able to rely on concrete situations.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that faced with such scenario the publishing industry must make some adjustments. Prestigious authors are there, but, alone, they are not enough. The readership is vast and must be enlarged, with specific attention, to companies and the young who will embrace the new jobs. Written texts will be accompanied by new formats and tools.

The group generating the magazine you are reading is today relying on three integrated companies: a publishing house (Edizioni Ambiente), a company supporting and guiding enterprises on environmental compliance – including with educational activities (Eda Pro) and another company carrying out environmental projects and strategies for individual companies or whole industrial supply chains (Centro Materia Rinnovabile).

We believe that in the field of environmental sustainability and the circular economy, it is no longer possible to play a somehow effective cultural role without integrating such variety of tools with cultural measures poised between various tools.

The map is getting broader, both for the techniques to be employed but above all the map of interlocutors we should address in order for the reflection to be checked and be effective.

On a case by case basis, the starting point of each initiative has to be found where the heart of the matter is and then transfer the issue to other fields. From some research to a book, from good practice to a magazine, to a training course, to a conference, to an exhibition, to a voluntary campaign or a project about a whole industrial supply chain.

In our case, in order to talk about the possibilities linked to recovering the flows of matter, we started this magazine, published books on new materials, curated and organized the ExNovoMaterials Exhibition at Ecomondo in 2016 (we talked about it in Renewable Matter, issue 13). Not only that: we supported a few exemplary industrial experiences, we analysed their legal aspects in our Rivista Rifiuti magazine, we collaborated with voluntary associations and foundations, we discussed the function of the so-called collective systems (a form of extended producer responsibility) in order to make recovery of some waste more effective, we promoted conferences, international partnerships, we organized courses and master’s degrees, we set up online data bases, we studied models for industrial optimization.

We did it in our sector, but we believe that anyone with the same objective should do it in their own field. It is not an option, but a necessity.

There is an ongoing initiative that represents effectively the blend of themes, relations and initiatives integrating in an “enlarged map” cultural strategy. We mention it because it combines various themes analysed by this magazine: waste recovery, supply chain economy, collective systems. And also because from a certain point of view it represents a model of the approach we tried to illustrate.

Centro Materia Rinnovabile, together with Edizioni Ambiente, in October 2016 started some research on the topic: “Building and infrastructure: towards a circular economy.” The objective is to promote, within such supply chains, the relation between supply and demand and recovered materials.

The leading issue is that of construction and demolition waste (C&D), a staggering flow of materials that, up until now, with very few exceptions, is only marginally recovered.

In Europe, the C&D waste flow exceeds 800 million tonnes per year. In Italy the official figures amount to about 50 million tonnes but – since many factors compromise traceability of such data – we can safely say that the actual figures are far higher. In June 2016, this magazine published a dossier entitled “Renewed Matter” – downloadable for free – which you can consult for data and analyses on the building sector and organic waste, in Europe and Italy.

However, figures aside, the opportunity of this piece of research stems from a number of factors. First of all the strong tendency, promoted by the European Commission, towards a circular economy, i.e. towards practices promoting – above all in sectors such as building, where large quantities of raw materials are used – the use of “renewed materials” (recovered, recycled, reused or reinvented) rather than extracting primary resources.

Such tendency falls within a serious economic and employment crisis in this sector. Building and infrastructure thus need to revisit their development drivers, where a new economy of materials can become a crucial element.

As for Italy, these factors are accompanied by a new set of rules and regulations of public procurement that – after promulgation of Dlgs 50/2016 of April 2016 – provides for all buildings subject to such procedures, compliance with some “minimal environmental criteria” (abbreviated as CAM), including substantial use of recovered materials.

In sum, introducing new elements of the circular economy in this sector, to leverage recovery and C&D waste recovery, can be both an adjustment to the new compliance requirements and a starting point to revitalise sector companies.

However, there is a key problem: C&D waste belongs to a “poor” sector, where the unit value of the recovered material is relatively low. Unlike what happens for other “luckier” materials – such as metals, paper or some types of plastics – the cost of recovering such waste is very close to the market price of corresponding virgin raw materials. In other words, the cost of collection, selection, traceability, treatment, qualification and certification of inert waste performance can be higher than a similar material coming from a mine, undercutting all recycling and recovery processes.

How can this problem be solved? From a methodological point of view, the solution is the same adopted for other waste supply chains: it is a matter of balancing legal requirements (limiting indiscriminate extraction of virgin materials) and economies of scale (promoting, through coordination of companies, the creation of huge flows of materials and of necessary infrastructure.)

So, economic and technical issues can be solved. But it is key that the companies in this sector – from builders to waste managers, from construction materials producers to recyclers – be able to work as a system, i.e. to collaborate on technical solutions and to coordinate themselves on economic rationalizations. Such possibility to organize the sector is thus the trickiest challenge because on the one hand, it requires that companies see a tangible advantage in cooperating and on the other, that the relevant institutions suggest organizational solutions and convincing regulatory simplifications.

A difficult but possible journey, involving many technical, cultural, economic and legal aspects.

Given the scope of this subject, in order to develop the project, Centro Materia Rinnovabile has first of all started some consultation and debate with the main relevant associations in the sector and with the leading institutional representatives.

The objective is to find shared solutions, through consultation in the form of meetings and conferences where the various phases of the process are presented, in order to reach decision makers and politicians with a package of solutions, in other words those legal, technical and economic tools that could speed up and promote an eco efficient use of materials in the sector.

Research provides its findings to the project, but it shares it with the professional associations, in order to confirm its economic and technical aspects and passes on the solutions to relevant institutions and monitoring bodies, to be sure of the compliance and end-of-waste formulas.

A small example of cultural politics blending a variety of tools and interlocutors, in line with the formula mentioned above, trying to achieve flexibility and the required ability of retroactivity in order to be effective.

The project is valid until June 2017 and we will report on its developments in other articles of this magazine. 

 

 

Centro Materia Rinnovabile, www.centromateriarinnovabile.it

Short Report, Renewed Matter, June 2016; http://www.materiarinnovabile.it/pubblicazioni

Marco Moro, “Circular Economy Showing off”, Renewable Matter 13www.renewablematter.eu/art/282/Circular_Economy_Showing_off