Editorials

Sustainability Is Fashionable

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, May 2017
Network

Food is now beyond debate. In just a few decades, the world of food has been turned upside down and a vision that can be defined as political – that is the capacity to connect different sectors, needs and companies – has become common practice amongst those approaching the food debate. Nowadays, the definition of a modern agricultural strategy often includes love for traditions, the desire to maintain social cohesion, marginal lands and biodiversity preservation, turnover expansion and tourism revival.

So, one of the defining characteristics of Italy’s brand has established itself as a driving force carrying with it the revival of local products, organic and biodynamic produce. Now it is the fashion’s turn. Certainly, fashion is not lagging behind judging from its competiveness capacity: figures prove quite the opposite and the very nature of this sector is characterized by a continuous evolution of sensitivity. But this topic can be tackled striking different chords. Lately, the environmental one has been very popular. 

This game started as a defence. Campaigns such as Greenpeace’s Detox helped focusing on the need to purify the system from unwelcome elements. The awareness of the health impacts of some toxic substances present both in clothes and in the environment started a transformation of production processes of the clothing industry still taking place and with different paces in different countries. 

Now a new challenge is gathering momentum: not only introducing the environmental variable into the choice of materials used but also adopting it as a competitive edge. The acceptance of this process cannot be taken for granted because resistance is building up on different fronts. One is skilfully highlighted in this issue of Renewable Matter in the article by Marco Ricchetti who tackles this topic with a quote by John Elkington from the incipit of Cannibals with Forks: “Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?” In other words, is it progress if corporations fighting for supremacy adopt sustainable production models?

This provocation embodies widespread suspicion also characterizing discussions on other extremely innovative production sectors. In theory, it is difficult to judge: it could be a wise precaution to bring greenwashing into the open; or it could be an ideological prejudice, a dogmatic stance against the industrial world. Pavan Sukhdev, the Indian economist who created the Teeb project on the value of ecosystems, in Corporation 2020, expressed a positive vision for the future of multinational organizations: “Over the last 2 years, green investments have grown by 61%, from $13.3 trillion in 2012 to $21.4 trillion in 2014. Old companies shed their skin, for instance Dow Chemical in Lousiana has invested in energy efficiency with a return equalling 204% over 13 years. And there are new companies such as Patagonia, Natura or Indian Infosys that have grown a lot by betting on social and environmental commitment.”

In the fashion industry how advanced is this process and how can it be coupled coherently with the circular economy’s perspective? To answer this question we had to bring up basic data, that is the strong growth of material flow to feed this sector. +68% in the last 15 years: from 8 kg of textile fibres per capita to 15. With the ensuing consumption of water, energy and land to support this mechanism. 

Faced with these figures, the proposal backed by our magazine is explained in a book just published, Neo-materials in the Circular Economy – Fashion (edited by M. Ricchetti, Edizioni Ambiente 2017, editor’s note). The work relates examples of sustainable use of materials in the fashion sector and analyses the topic from the use of non-renewable materials, the use of water resources and the impact of chemicals employed.

The fleeting grace of a fashion-show jacket might seem inconsequential and we might focus instead on cannibals with forks. But if we take into consideration the bigger picture, the life cycle of what is used to make what we wear every day is more important: clothes have a remarkable environmental impact. And our choices can have a positive or negative outcome. 

Circular Cities

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, March 2017
Network

Circularity is a characteristic of nature. As a matter of fact, the linear economy (mine-goods-landfill is becoming an ever-increasing fast cycle) does not stop circularity, it only diverts it. If we entrust millions of tonnes of dangerous waste to precarious and illegal landfilling we create a circularity of poisons: water tables become veins ready for a lethal injection. If, on the other hand, we devise goods for the recovery of the elements they contain and build a chain for the reuse of waste, we go back to a natural form of circularity, to the logic of life that condemns stupidity to extinction: instead of dangerous substances, we create legal jobs, turnover, and matter to feed a new production cycle.

So, we are not faced with choosing between two industrial models, but between a self-destructive system, already unable to avoid the counterblows caused by the build-up of environmental imbalances, and a system able to maintain that balance and offer a long-term solution. Cities become a training area for this choice. Even if perhaps, we should not talk about “cities.” According to Treccani encyclopaedic dictionary, a city is “a very large urban centre with buildings arranged in a more or less regular pattern as to offer good road conditions, with public services and anything necessary to favour social life.” 

This is not what has happened in many Italian cities since the end of WWII. Houses have not adapted to the expansion of public services, but public services have adapted to houses, which in turn have adapted to undeclarable maps of land interests. Thus, the chaotic expansion of urban areas has deprived the countryside of its nature without conferring these sparsely populated territories cluttered with buildings the status of city. As is the case with illegal landfills, this squandering model has spread poisons. Physical poisons, measurable with the violation of air quality laws. And social poisons that have started to become more apparent when the economic downturn and immigration have disrupted the precarious balance in the outskirts. 

Faced with this dangerous illegal situation, the circular economy seems not only a possible but also a necessary cure. In the last 40 years, Italy’s arable land has shrunk drastically: it has lost 5 million hectares, an area amounting to the area of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria combined. And this huge area, over 1.5 million hectares, has been buried under detached houses, warehouses, roads, junctions, pylons and landfills. 7% of the Italian territory is waterproofed, a percentage definitely much higher than the European average. What can be done?

In order to curb this damage we must not only reduce soil consumption but also reverse the trend, recovering the green use of paved and built-up land. In other words, we must take nature into cities regenerating critical parts of urban areas. But in order to do this, to gain soil, we must develop buildings vertically, thus gaining space for trees and for the quality of construction. 

This is the model promoted by Stefano Boeri in an interview by Marco Moro published in this issue of Renewable Matter. “Buildings become a habitat not just for humans, but also for plants and animals. At the same time, together with the advantages in terms of health and quality of life, they have a direct impact on the urban economy. Trees in a urban context contribute to the lowering of temperature inside buildings between 2 to 5 °C, thus allowing a 30% reduction in air conditioning and guaranteeing considerable energy savings. Moreover, plants retain water thus reducing the risk of flooding with all benefits this entails. A series of actions and factors that make projects such as Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) tools to recover and optimize water and energy resources.”

Smart buildings (that is, not stupid from a biological, evolutionary point of view) become a necessary but not sufficient condition to define a city jumping from the circularity of poisons to virtuous circularity. They are the hardware of this new model. The software is represented by the virtuous energy interconnections explained by Ernesto Ciorra (ENEL manager for sustainability and innovation), by water resilience of Cap Group described by Emanuele Bompan, by the material recovery chain from demolition and building presented by Roberto Coizet. By combining all these experiences, we obtain a real and economically sound model. We must create a regulatory framework enabling these experiments to win the extremely hard battle of conquering 21st century markets. Politics should embrace this battle wholeheartedly. 

 

Immage: www.flaticon.com

The Future Despite Trump

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, January 2017
Network

 

We are getting closer to 2019, the year in which Los Angeles is projected in the extraordinary Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott in 1982. 35 years on from that great interpretation by Harrison Ford it is not easy to compare fantasy with reality. California is certainly calmer than Philip K. Dick had imagined in the book on which the film is based. By contrast, the Washington led by the diplomacy of Trump Towers (those who accept to build them are good, while those who oppose them are enemies of the United States) and by an attack on the laws protecting the environment appear more disquieting than expected, populated by replicants of an antiscientific thought that seemed relegated to faded motion pictures. 

What will the world be like in 30 years time, in 2049? The Blade Runner sequel is well described in Roberto Giovannini’s column. But in reality what will the situation be like? Forecasts become more and more uncertain as time goes by because the speed and radicality of change are on the rise; the variables at play become more numerous and complex; political imbalances become more violent and cover up, with some background noise, even more dangerous environmental imbalances.

The great phenomena started or multiplied by the 20th century (from the population boom to climate change, including migrations that may become of biblical proportions) will produce consequences that we can barely make out. It is a long term scenario that can act as a compass to find our way. However, since we are walking on very rugged terrain, it is good to concentrate on the next steps in order to avoid falling into a crevasse.

One of the tools the European Union is putting in place to tackle two urgent and overwhelmingly important problems – the economic crisis and the environmental crisis – is the circular economy. As we mentioned on more than one occasion in this magazine, the stakes are high. According to the European Commission, the measures contained in the circular economy package presented in December 2015 will produce considerable advantages: annual savings of €600 billion, 580,000 new jobs with annual savings of €72 billion for European companies thanks to a more efficient use of resources and thus a reduction of raw materials import and a 2-4% cut of greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Parliament opened a new debate on the new regulations which put stronger emphasis on certain aspects (for example urban waste recycling to 70% by 2030 instead of 65%, percentage of landfilled waste reduced to 5% instead of 10%).

But is Italy getting ready to face this challenge? In this issue of Renewable Matter we offer an account of the Italian strategy on the bioeconomy presented in November and of the first Master’s degree on the bioeconomy and the circular economy, achieved thanks to a synergy of the four main Italian universities (University of Turin, University of Milan Bicocca, University of Bologna and University of Naples Federico II).

But, as stated in an interview by Mario Bonaccorso to Pasquale Granata – co-founder of GFBiochemicals – “after the strategy a detailed action plan must be developped. I believe that there are three urgent measures to be taken: the first is about the creation of a market, as it successfully happened with bioplastics with the law that banned non-biodegradable shopping bags; the second is about supporting demand through green public procurement policies based on a clear system of standards and labelling; the third is about communication and popularization of the bioeconomy so that Italian consumers and public opinion know that we are not talking about a niche, but about a sector that is already creating wealth and employment, within an ecosustainability framework.”

It is a clear line of development. The problem is that at the moment this journey is faced with many obstacles on many fronts. First of all, the recovery of waste substances that, at the end of the production system, can be considered secondary raw materials rather than waste. Great Britain has produced a continuous flow of end-of-life waste decrees for the classification of such materials. Italy has struggled with the first ones last summer and many regions have not implemented the measures, thus jeopardizing many investments and jobs.

If a healthy economy is not unleashed, it will be difficult for the country to take off in the right direction.  

Undesiderable Recycling

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, November 2016
Network

Recycling is a right and proper thing to do. But there are exceptions. And Trump presidency is a case in point. Before the scientific community unanimously asking to secure the atmosphere, Donald decided to appoint president of the Environmental Protection Agency a climate sceptic, a man who for years has fought against this very agency impugning its decisions in the Supreme Court. Choosing Scott Pruitt – the Oklahoma Attorney General defined by Giuseppe Sarcina on Il Corriere della Sera as “the stipendiary spokesman of the energy lobby: oil and above all gas” – as EPA head is not just a mockery but also an insult to California devastated by an endless drought, to hundreds American cities and associations involved in fighting climate change, to stars-and-stripes businesses risking losing their markets and competitiveness. It is also a dangerous kind of recycling: that of social toxins that risk breaking up the USA spreading bitterness and division.

Quite rightly so The Times devoted its Person of the Year cover to Trump: “The President of the Divided States of America.” The grounds for this decision read, “With this real estate baron and casino owner who became the star of a reality show and provoker without having ever worked one single day as a public official and having only looked after his own interests, we can only expect the smoking collapse of a vast political edifice that used to house parties, experts in political affairs, donors, pollsters, all those people who did not take him seriously and that had not expected his arrival.”

It is difficult to predict the effects of this newly elected administration: many reckon it will be less disastrous than expected. But appointing Pruitt does not leave much room for hope. The former attorney general, a hardliner against abortion and gay marriage, is the voice of an America looking back to the past in tune with that part of Europe most scared by the economic turndown, the loss of jobs and the increase of migration flows. 

Will it be a characteristic of the next decade? In this issue of Renewable Matter, Emanuele Bompan takes stock of the reaction in the USA, listening to the suggestions of those who do not give up: from Michael Brune, Sierra Club chair, who envisages “battles in courts, in Congress and in the street”, to Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute fellow, who imagines a dual strategy based on democrat support and on grass-root protests organized by cities and communities. 

For the circular economy, in particular, it will be a great challenge: it will have to strike a balance in a very hostile environment. A difficult but not impossible mission. Especially because it is played with reverse roles compared to a still rather widespread collective belief that ecologists are romantic people who know everything about endangered species and nothing about balancing the books. In the USA, the contrary seems to be true: it appears rather difficult that Trump can hold up his anti-environmental commitments used during his election campaign without seriously damaging American businesses engaged in the race towards efficiency and clean energy. Indeed, while I was finishing this article, I got the news of a green challenge between two giants. Apple has opened a new line of investments on wind energy by acquiring 30% of China-based Goldwind’s controlled companies. Google announced that as from 2017 all the electricity used by its offices and data centres around the world will be 100% renewable.

These are choices driven both by direct economic benefits and the need to strengthen brands with actions attuned to customers: being able to say that an iPhone energy balance is lighter or that you can send Gmails without increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases means improving one’s positioning compared to other companies.

While the USA that voted for Trump seem to want to go back to the first half of the 20th century, the USA competing in the market raise the stakes by betting on the future. Interesting times ahead. 

Two Tests for Europe

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, September 2016
Network

The Paris Agreement ratification and the circular economy package. These are two important tests for Europe. They will be a way to measure both its political capacity but also our capacity to interpret politics. Both questions can be interpreted in opposite ways, each supported by a certain degree of logic and a large group of advocates. Let us sum them up. 

First theory: doom-mongers. The Paris Agreement is the umpteenth farce by the circus that for over twenty years has gravitated around the UN to produce conferences leading to no practical results. Do you require proof of it? There you go. Scientists, including those collaborating with The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in other words the UN, have declared in plain English that in order to secure the atmosphere we must drastically and quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions. We need to leave underground two thirds of known fossil fuel reserves and certainly not looking for new ones as we are still doing! Talks about cuts are just greenwashing: the truth is that we keep polluting as if there were no tomorrow. The main path to follow was that indicated by the Kyoto Protocol: in principle keeping emission ceilings that should not be overshot and punishing with sanctions those who are at fault. As far as the Circular Economy Package is concerned, suffice it to see how the text submitted by the Juncker Commission reduced the Barroso Commission’s targets: such a shame. Both the Paris Agreement and the Circular Economy Package are a farce. 

Second theory: the integrated. The Paris Agreement is not only the best that we can get but also an excellent agreement. Thinking that more could be achieved is midsummer madness: global governance on big ecosystems is a form of extremism leading nowhere. Communism’s orphans try to recycle themselves, but the free market is the only force able to lead us out of the economic crisis. We will proceed step by step, bearing in mind economic priorities. As for the Circular Economy Package, implementing the Juncker Commission’s suggestions will be very difficult, let alone others!

At this point of any argument, we often say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. A statement loved by those running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, but of little relevance in this case. In both lines of reasoning what really works is hierarchy: the doom-mongers put the environment on top of the economy while the integrated overturn this priority order. And both fronts have a static vision, as if the game were nearly over and the verdict final. But this is not the case. The environmental argument without economic sustainability will lead to the collapse of society, and the economic argument without environmental sustainability will lead, albeit a little bit more slowly, to the same result. But it is still all to play for!

In this issue, the debate on the circular economy and the interview with Ellen MacArthur show us that an eco-eco (economic and ecological) growth path is possible as long as we are prepared to carry on a campaign both inside and outside parliaments, with the public opinion and news media that have an increasingly crucial role. What has been achieved so far is undoubtedly not enough to secure our big ecosystems, but it reveals a trend that is gathering momentum and dividing the world of fossil fuels, partly allured by reconverting in order to enter the rapidly growing green market. 

“It is not a case of causing a little bit less damage every year, we need to rebuild a different model with great economic potential,” told Renewable Matter the founder of the Elle MacArthur Foundation while defining the Circular Economy Package, “the beginning of a great success.” Of course, technology on its own is not enough: a new attitude and new habits are needed, but the circular economy is a model combining these two very elements. In recent months, we have witnessed the creation of the world’s first industrial plant for the production of biobutanediol without a single drop of oil and the growth of the sharing concept in the mobility sector. If how the game will end is still uncertain, we can say that the cards held by the innovation front have dramatically improved. We just need to play them to the best of our abilities. 

Fairtrade Carrier Bags

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, July 2016
Network

Pushed by the increase in social inequalities, xenophobia moves forward. Fear of otherness – of the threatening unknown – is on the rise despite statistical data indicating that most acts of violence, starting from sexual abuse, come from those historically near to us. And the temptation to build up walls is looming ahead, as shown by the referendum of 23rd June in Great Britain, in – up until now – unsuspected places.

The articles we publish in this issue of Renewable Matter on the problem of carrier bags help look at the link between environmental and social issues with a fresh pair of eyes.

The association between carrier bags and racial prejudices may seem far-fetched. But the technological frontiers of compostable plastic are very advanced and could lead us to think that the tools of environmental protection are a prerogative of the richer countries: ecology as a barrier between the North and South shores of the Mediterranean. But the efforts made by many African countries to get rid of the damage produced by an incorrect use of plastic show that the sustainability path is shared in very different contexts. Not necessarily is there a before and after, an industrial growth causing damage which is dealt with at a later stage. Human evolution, like the natural one, moves forward in leaps. Difficult contexts stimulate new ideas which, for example, can lead from backwardness to off-grid, bypassing traditional infrastructure.

In the case of plastic, the Rwanda lesson, as well as that of other African and Asian countries, told in this issue, offers food for thought. “In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic carrier bags, which had clogged the sewage system and contributed to the formation of disastrous floodings. Other nations, including many African ones, did the same. According to the Earth Policy Institute in Washington D.C. (2013 data), 19 countries of the continent have partially or totally banned carrier bags, targeting thinner ones, more easily blown away by the wind,” Jonathan W. Rosen writes, explaining that motivations are real: in Mauritania, 70% of the sheep and cows’ deaths is due to ingestion of carrier bags. And Roberto Giovannini, in his report, talks about a reduction in the use of plastic in Kenya, Southafrica, Senegal, Botswana, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Gabon, Ethiopia, Malawi, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Uganda and Cameroon.

In Southern Italy too, the fight for the environment and legality is harsh. It is the subject of Fortunato Ferrino’s spot, the actor interpreting the role of the mafia boss Pietro Savastano in the TV series Gomorra. He is the testimonial of the #UnSaccoGiusto campaign, promoted by Legambiente to fight the new ecomafia business: fake biodegradable carrier bags. Almost half of the carrier bags around is illegal. That means 40,000 tonnes of fake plastic, a loss for the legal supply chain of compostable carrier bags of €160 million, with 30 million in tax evasion. On top of that, there is the environmental damage: an increase of waste management cost amounting to €50 million. We are talking about an illegal supply chain stealing a turnover from the healthy economy, it also takes away resources from the inland revenue and damages the environment.

Again, an alternative is possible, as shown by the creation of Coop Ventuno in Castel Volturno in Terra dei Fuochi (“Land of Fire”). It is a cooperative committed to the production of biodegradable carrier bags and objects made with materials from separate waste collection. Massimo Noviello and Gennaro Del Prete are the co-founders, the sons of two protagonists of the fight against gangs: Federico del Prete was a trade unionists of peddlers killed because he had reported the racket of illegal carrier bags. Domenico Noviello was an entrespreneur killed for turning in some emissaries of the Casalesi clan. “Freeing the market from illegal carrier bags means opening it to producers of compostable bioplastics, with an increase of investments in the field that would guarantee new clean employment,” explain the founders of the cooperative. The two million views of the spot in three weeks, that reached an audience of over 6 million people, show that when there is collaboration across the board success is bound to be achieved. 

 

 

#UnSaccoGiusto, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y37vj28p53A

Cooperativa Ventuno, www.coopventuno.it

Renewability across the Board

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, May 2016
Network

While we are completing this issue of Renewable Matter, from New York we learn that, at the UN headquarters, the leaders of 175 nations signed the Paris agreement. This is a tangible step forward because, as it had happened with the father of this document – the Kyoto Protocol – the pact to protect climate stability will be effective only when ratified by a minimum of 55 countries representing at least 55% of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the case of the Kyoto Protocol, it took over 7 years for the European diplomacy, at the time very insular, to make the agreement enter into force.

Now the situation is totally different, a much tighter schedule is to be expected. A first assessment of the first voluntary objectives by the member states will occur in 2018, in 2020, the agreement will be effective with a five-year revision to improve on the focus of the strategies. According to Todd Stern, Obama’s top climate negotiator, this is a historic breakthrough because it “establishes the first universal regime, rather than a transitional one, on climate.”

Much has been said about weaknesses and strengths of such agreement. The former include the lack of sanctions against countries in case they should not meet their commitments (they were already present in the Kyoto Protocol); too generous deadlines (scientists demand rapid and radical actions); insufficient targets (even if everyone reached the declared objectives, global temperature would still rise by 2.7-3 °C globally compared to the pre-industrial era).

The latter category, that of positive aspects, include the fact that for the first time all governments decided to state the objectives for the protection of climate (in Kyoto only the OECD committed to this); the clause forbidding every country to deny for at least 4 years the signed agreement (in such a way a political change is avoided, able to cause a rapid about-turn); the radical nature of the objectives established (to do our utmost so that the temperature rise does not exceed 1.5 °C by the end of the century).

The positive interpretation of the Paris agreement is exacerbated by strong economic signals. A $100 billion fund has been approved to develop technologies with a low environmental impact in countries with little industrialization. Moreover, in 2015, investments in renewable energies marked a new record, reaching $286 billion, as opposed to 130 billion for fossil fuels.

So – thanks also to the increasingly dramatic evidence of the on-going climate change – the debate is taking for granted the technical aspects of the issue and is concentrating on the political difficulties that could hinder the path to the agreement. For instance, the risk linked to the election of a Republican to the White House in 2017.

But there is a positive aspect that has been neglected, thus risking producing asymmetry in the climate cure: the recovery of tens of billions of tons of wasted matter every year. The concept of renewability cannot be understood as a one-way process: there is a lot – and rightly so – of attention on energy. Little – too little – on matter. Renewable Matter was created just to fill this gap, because in order to regain a climate balance, the attention must be refocused.

The package for a circular economy – presented by the European Commission in a symbolic coincidence with the UN conference on climate – is the opportunity to reduce the delay because the linear economy, even if carried out with a lower use of fossils, is not compatible with the culture and production leap indicated by the Paris challenge. We need to go from disposable energy and the burden of materials to be landfilled to an economy that keeps on recycling energy, matter and intelligence, by creating networks and opportunities for a collective growth. The horizontal development, depending on the involvement of local areas and a fairer distribution of benefits, represents another condition for giving up the highly hierarchical model characterizing the fossil and waste era. It is a global battle but it is fought in each country individually. Getting there first means gaining competitiveness. 

The Mirror of Waste

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, March 2016
Network

Nature got rid of waste because it found customers interested in any form of residue; the twentieth century multiplied waste because it did not find them. It kind of hurts our pride as Homo sapiens, but it all boils down to a delay in our knowledge. The evolution of life created efficiency because the measure of success has occurred over a long time – over three billion years of evolution – and on such a long time span there is no cheating. Market evolution started over the short term and along the way our vision has deteriorated: now we can only focus on a period of a few months, enough to guarantee stock options for those in power.

These macro themes – from the financialization of the economy to eco mafias – have generated a heated debate that in this Renewable Matter’s issue it is not possible to tackle. But the focus on remanufacturing enables us to take stock on one of the main tools we have to stand against the rampant proliferation of waste. Guido Viale’s article gives us an overview on the values at stake and on the need to create industrial mechanisms supporting the redesigning of the life of everyday objects. Fabio Iraldo, Irene Bruschi and Gianni Silvestrini focus on the benefits of the recovery process of goods from an energy saving viewpoint (up to 90%), on lower water consumption, of final costs (from 35 to 90% lower compared to manufacturing from scratch), on employment (in Europe, towards the end of the next decade, 175,000 jobs could be created), on prices (20-50% lower compared to non regenerated products). Also, Edo Ronchi – Chairman of the Foundation for Sustainable Development – expands on “measures generating benefits and market opportunities for companies”.

Looking at ourselves in the waste mirror, we see our society’s profile and can find out how to improve it. It is not only about increasing the percentage of separate waste collection or that of recycled materials. The key issue is the well-structured nature of the idea of remanufacturing. We are talking about a reconsideration of the production system as a whole, which requires a series of actions: improving ecodesign of sold goods to simplify the fight against waste; keeping the information content of some goods (which is higher than the sum of the components); organizing a structured system of restocking the production chain involving the whole society; revisiting the tax system in order to reward virtuous processes by enacting the polluter pays principle and releasing economic resources to invest in order to promote employment.

All this would lead to tangible benefits: a drop in the environmental impact of production even in terms of global warming; better security, because the supply of materials that for various reasons (ranging from price instability to geopolitical tensions) could no longer be available, is guaranteed; increased collective awareness of social cohesion; synergy with the sharing economy’s processes. This is what Rossella Muroni – Legambiente’s president – defines as “Copernican revolution” because it puts strain on the one-way relationship between producer and consumer and opens up to a process similar to that described, in the energy realm, by distributed generation: a horizontal development model restoring social balance as well.

But in order to reach these goals a legal framework promoting such process is necessary. From this perspective, the European vision, that for a few decades guaranteed the leadership to the old continent with regard to environmental policies, seems a little blurred. The package on the circular economy was re-presented by the Junker Commission as a watered down version compared to the former Commission’s proposal.

Now it’s the European Parliament’s turn and let the battle begin. We acknowledge Simona Bonafé’s criticism – reporter of the package on the circular economy – where she talks about lack of ambition, the same term used by PD’s (Democratic Party) Chiara Braga, in charge of the environment. Junker’s version toned down the recycling targets; it eliminated anti waste obligations; it lowered the importance of anti landfill measures; it weakened the obligation of separate collection of the organic fraction; it did not lay down specific norms for the elimination of toxic substances from products that hinder their recycling. The European parliament debate is the right place to make the voice of the citizens’ representatives heard and to show that the Union is not the equivalent of the taxman but the soul of our continent.

2016: Rm Renews Itself Along With Matter

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, January 2016
Network

Belated Happy 2016! For us at Renewable Matter, 2015 was the year in which we fine-tuned our editorial project: not just a simple magazine, but a place for catalysing reflections on a neglected topic. Much attention devoted to energy (and rightly so) but little awareness of the importance of matter recovery. 
For Renewable Matter and the sector, 2015 was a positive year. During the past year, we managed to attract new supporters such as Barilla and Fondazione Cariplo and expanded our Partners’ network (associations, clusters, research institutes, universities, and consulting agencies), adding partners of the calibre of The Worldwatch Institute, Matrec, the Global Footprint Network, Ambiente Italia and European Bioplastics. Our debut on social media was also very positive.

On Twitter, @MRinnovabile profile reached 1,000 and now it gets 2 new followers every day: on a sample of 100 tweets, between 10th and 17th December 2015, the number of accounts potentially reached (directly by the activity of the account or indirectly thanks to the interaction with other profiles) was over 80,000. 

Meanwhile, we received positive signs of change. Despite a first stop and a scaling down of regulations, the EU passed a circular economy package, which will be thoroughly discussed in this issue. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held soon after in December in Paris. Some, adopting a rigorous scientific point of view, rejected it because its conclusions do not include the necessary measures to protect us from the threats of climate change. I think that such a stance does not grasp the main idea: The UN Summit was not a scientific meeting because, from this point of view, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science) on several occasions had already outlined an exhaustive picture of the situation; it was only a case of reaching political agreement. To do so on topics that influence markets, it was necessary to come to an economic agreement. The conditions for such deal were created thanks to global scale mediation. The agreement was reached on points supported by the EU and environmentalists (keeping global warming below 2 °C, trying all it takes to keep it below 1.5 °C compared to the pre-industrial era); with methods favoured by the USA (no regulations from above, only the law of supply and demand); with the timeframe wanted by China (when Beijing had already started to considered very dangerous the pollution pressure on its territory and had become a productive leader in the renewable source sector).

The results of this effort are still insufficient but not negligible. For the first time, it gathered together 186 countries responsible for 95% of greenhouse emissions. These countries are already halfway in reaching their CO2 reduction target. For the first time in the history of humankind, a mechanism for the governance of common goods was set in place entailing the global distribution of tasks. Surely, it is a weak governance because it did not start, as logics would require, from the targets to achieve in order to allocate tasks, but it followed the opposite route: each country committed to a voluntary target and made it known. Nevertheless, the mechanism was set in motion and there is a reasonable possibility that the economic machine, once it has identified a purpose able to mobilize the public opinion leading to profit and consensus, will move faster than politics. Even the consortium of entrepreneurs led by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg believe in this and decided to allocate $20 billion to speed up green research.

Against this framework, Renewable Matter intends to throw down the gauntlet in 2016. This year we will strengthen our position through new initiatives. We will offer an increasingly widespread distribution of our magazine and Insight, an in-depth analysis supplement we started publishing at the end of 2015. In January, we created Centro Materia Rinnovabile (“Renewable Matter Centre”) to offer assistance to companies undergoing the green transition and to show that the circular economy is an extraordinary instrument to accelerate the synergy between ecology and economy. Last but not least, we have started to organize conferences and meeting opportunities for those that recognize matter recovery as a crucial instrument to relaunch the economy, employment and to support local areas involved in various projects.

Needless to say, it will make for an interesting year.

Athens' Mistake

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, October 2015
Network

Two thousand five hundred years ago, a small Greek city, the first democracy on the planet, worked wonders in organizing its resistance against the Persian army, the most powerful empire of the time. For more than 10 years, just a few thousand hoplites kept in check and then defeated armies coming from Africa and Asia. And nearly simultaneously, the same city, Athens, went through a golden age of knowledge and beauty, the splendour of classical art par excellence. Nevertheless, at the apex of its power, Phidias’ city did not manage to extract from its territory the resources it needed for its development. Its growth was unsustainable, as we would describe it today: difficulties in managing ecosystems – together with a too narrow-minded idea of citizenship – contributed to slowing down its expansion and setting in motion its demise. Athens was the first city to lose its food self-sufficiency. Massive deforestation of Attica, with soil erosion already described by Plato, anticipated a problem that can now be found on a planetary scale. 

 

Excellent at exploring philosophy and art, Athens was not able to find the same balance in its relationship with nature. Twenty-five centuries later, can we really consider that lesson learnt? Can we tackle the current crisis in the knowledge that we must take matter into account, since even the virtual world needs a screen and energy to function? And that the growing importance of financial activities in the economic system – the escape from reality – is wreaking havoc? 

This issue focusses on a problem that looks rather technical. Even the words used by experts (i.e.: compliance schemes, that is programmes to involve manufacturers in the collection of their goods once they become waste) keeps the masses away. Yet, we are talking about something that we see every day. Something that has an impact on our wallets. Something affecting the quality of the air we breathe and of the water we drink. The problem is that this “something” is difficult to define because it is a double-faced entity. Sometimes it looks like a good: a resource, a raw material that feeds our industry. Sometimes it looks like waste: a burden to get rid of. 

But problems arise if we consider this sequence in fixed and irreversible temporal order: a good that suddenly becomes waste creating problems of supply and disposal. But there must not necessarily be a before and an after. We can see matter as a cycle passing from one form to the other, from one function to another, from one object to another. Goods become waste, waste feeds a new production cycle that generates more waste which is transformed into other goods. Not ad infinitum, but for a long time.

There seems to be much debate about the circular economy, but its application is still limited. How could it be otherwise in a country where everyone talks about separate waste collection but few people take an interest in the destiny of these materials so laboriously and costly selected? In a country where what matters is the political benefit gained by brandishing an increase in organic waste, paper or plastic collection while no one cares about guaranteeing the basic conditions for the construction of treatment plants for such materials. In doing so, we run the risk of leaving the country, especially the South, at the mercy of gangs making money by selling off public health with illegal landfills and boycotting an advance waste management system. 

Against all odds, in just a few years, public awareness campaigns, our laboratories’ research abilities and the brave actions of some entrepreneurs have made Italy a leader in the field of bioeconomy, boasting some very successful pilot experiments. Now we must keep up this excellence and feed it with the necessary matter. Matter that must not be taken away from other precious uses, such as food, but obtained by reducing wastage, finding ad hoc solutions for each area, creating jobs that cannot be delocalized and continuing to invest in research. 

This is a challenge requiring advanced technology and system innovation. The debate on collective systems on this issue, published to coincide with The States General of the Green Economy and Ecomondo, is intended as a contribution in this direction. We explore this topic by tackling it both from a technical and a layman’s side in order to build a bridge between these two worlds. Italy has got a good hand, now it must play its cards well.

 

 

The 5th Edition of The States General of the Green Economy will take place on 3rd and 4th November 2015 at Ecomondo Rimini Fiera, www.statigenerali.org and www.ecomondo.com.

Fighting Starvation, Beyond Food

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, August 2015
Network

A flood of paper and Charts (Bologna, Milan), a torrent of conferences and a show-off of good resolutions to fight food waste stemmed from Expo 2015 should not be underestimated. A great communication effort was carried out. Some aspects will stay, they will help change the feelings towards bad eating habits and will become part of the everyday life of millions of people. Nevertheless, the spotlight was on the denunciation of waste, rather than an indication of structural solutions to reduce it radically. A lot has been said about techniques to avoid turning into waste food that could still be used (this is an urgent and necessary step by the way) and about a broader vision enabling the prevention of this damage with the development of a circular economy.

The issue of fighting starvation is still at the forefront, pushed by the quantitative rationale that caused the problem. We have often heard the old refrain that we need to produce more because population will grow as well as per capita consumption. We are all too familiar with the adage according to which the pollution problems created by agriculture are on the rise as well as the old cliché that one third of food is lost in its journey from the field to the table. As if we were talking about independent mechanisms, without trying to pinpoint the connections between greater aridity that every year causes a loss of 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil and the asymmetries that engender lack of food in one billion people, while an additional billion people suffer from lack of food.

Such connections have social (70% of food production is ensured by small farmers), environmental (one fifth of the productive fields is irrigated and the irrigation cycle, already in crisis, is threatened by climate change) and economic (the race towards lower and lower prices is not enough to beat poverty and does not contribute to protect the health of individuals) implications.

By linking these aspects, a wider and more compact front against waste could be presented. It’s not just about not wasting food. We must not dissipate water, energy, fertile soil and social cohesion by forcing the production cycles, disregarding the overal results in the medium term: to get a clear picture of this risk, flicking through history books (from irrigation excess in the Fertile Crescent to the hundreds of species of insects that have developed DDT resistance) should be enough.

A circular vision of the agrarian economy can help build a more solid model for reviving production and agriculture. Perhaps by eliminating the barriers and controversies surrounding these opposing worlds, especially since the crop share destined for energy has been rising, with a peak stimulated by USA subsidies for corn which around 2007 caused cereal prices to skyrocket, generating the tortilla revolution with the slogan “not even a square metre of farmland for energy”. A battle for soil that belongs to a technologically-outmoded world, as it can be inferred by the Manifesto of the Green Economy on Agri-food for the Occasion of Expo 2015, circulated by the National Board for the Green Economy.

The above-mentioned manifesto deals with a bioeconomy based on the valorization of biomasses from different sources used to generate renewable energies and to supply materials for a host of activities (from handicrafts to green chemistry). It also states that “such activities – when integrated and sustainable for the environment and not stealing land and productions for food – can contribute to improving the protection and care for the environment, to the recovery of marginal and degraded areas and offer added income opportunities for farmers while helping to hinder rural depopulation”.

Biorefineries – Italy is the leading country in this field – are an advanced version of such sustainable activities: they are able to reuse agricultural residues or to obtain crops without using water and phytopharmaceuticals on abandoned soils in a series of “cascade” processes where each time previous-cycle products are employed in order to obtain useful materials in various production cycles.

Such vision of a circular economy integrating food in the whole production system can provide a huge contribution to the battle against waste of matter and energy, helping to find a solution to the conundrum raised by Expo 2015: nourishing a planet with an ever-increasing population with less and less resources and with climate change looming ahead. To fight starvation, producing more food is not enough: we need to look beyond food, thus guaranteeing social cohesion and a balance of ecosystems.

As Vandana Shiva put it in the Manifesto Terra Viva: “The new agriculture replaces the linear process of exploitation of soil and resources with a circular returning process that guarantees resilience, sustainability, justice and peace. Such new agriculture is part of a process aiming at redefining the concept of democracy and freedom. In the old atomistic and mechanistic notion, my freedom ends where yours begins. In the new notion, based on the circular economy and on the growing role communities are playing, my freedom begins where yours begins and includes freedom of the soil and of all species”.

 

Manifesto of the Green Economy on Agri-food for the Occasion of Expo 2015, downloadable document from tinyurl.com/poh8wmy

Manifesto Terra Viva by Vandana Shiva, available online tinyurl.com/njktfz5

Throwaway Culture

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, June 2015
Network

“Throwaway culture”. Pope Francis’ message is potent: just two words say it all. Much has already been written on the critique to the technocratic and financial degeneration of the economy contained in the encyclical Laudato si’. The passages where this pontificate is radically moving the debate on our relationship with ecosystems and all the other species with whom we share the planet have also been stressed.

Giuseppe Picone (Rome, 1926-2008), ceramic plate, Young Priests

 

Each of these themes deserve careful attention. First of all, the courage the Pope has shown in addressing the issue of climate change. He has been one of the few people who has stressed the link with the dramatic increase in flows of refugees who risk destabilizing Europe, by denouncing “a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation”. His words on the need to abandon our dependency on oil and coal are unequivocal: “Technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay”. 

On Renewable Matter, however, we need to highlight an aspect that has received little attention in the interpretations, not in the text itself. Talking about “waste and the throwaway culture” Pope Francis hints at a series of issues that emerge several times in all the pages of the encyclical. The fight against the mental laziness of those who solve the problem of productive supply by plundering nature is condemned time and time again. Be it for dignity’s sake (“Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity”). Be it for the sake of defending the roots of our existence (“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”). Be it because of tensions linked to the plunder of raw materials that become scarcer and scarcer (“It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims”). 

The Pope’s condemnation has to do, most of all, with the critique of an industrial model which has betrayed its preconditions and has denied the very concept of efficiency to which it seemed ready to sacrifice everything: “The way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard”. 

“The throwaway culture” should therefore be considered an oxymoron. It is actually a lack of culture, a limit in understanding efficiency and convenience criteria. But this limit does not correspond to the current limit of knowledge. It is not an inevitable mistake. To maintain the current level of waste – tens of billions of tons of matter that are subtracted every year from the stable custody of ecosystems to be transformed into tens of billions of tons of waste that alter the equilibrium of the atmosphere and the earth – is a choice serving the interests of an industrial generation that is trying to delay the evolution towards a more mature approach to production. 

The message of the encyclical is strong also from this point of view. The new approach to the circular economy is based on technology (the one that leads towards circular economy, the sharing economy, the economy based on a careful use of renewable resources). It is also based on consonance with nature (“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the Earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters”). Finally, it is based on new lifestyles (“Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full”). 

Laudato si’ is a text that speaks loud and clear, to catholics and non-catholics alike. It marks an important moment in the debate on the environment.

However, the lack of attention and authority on these themes in the political sphere is evident, also in response to solicitations from the secular world. For example, Achim Steiner, Director of UNEP, the UN Environment Programme, has recently stressed time and time again the need to speed up the transition to a circular economy. He has stressed how the last century has witnessed a rapid transformation of our relationship with the natural world, with an escalation in the use of resources: “We are now living 40% over the Earth’s capacity. If the world’s population and the levels of consumption stay the same, the annual global consumption of resources could reach 140 billion tons by 2050, triple what was consumed in 2000”.

The Novel Players of the Recovering Economy Seek a New Balance between Regulations and the Market

by Antonio Cianciullo, Roberto Coizet
<p>Roberto Coizet is the President of Edizioni Ambiente and Coordinator of the &acirc;&euro;&oelig;Development of Ecosystem Services&acirc;&euro;Ě team of States General of the Green Economy.</p>
Section
Editorials, April 2015
Network

The energy sector is in the spotlight. Earnings are increasingly generated by services rather than by electricity. Business strategies are moving from oligopoly to a flexible-grid-based supply chain fed by millions of micro-producers of renewable energy. The power hierarchy is shifting from hardware, i.e. from being based on a few major production plants, into a soft power supported by innovation and marketing. 

Although the topic is unlikely to crop up in day-to-day conversation, the ongoing energy transition is commonplace. From an economic and ecological point of view, another, equally important transition is underway. However, unlike that which concerns energy, it hardly draws as much attention from media. The second major transition is about the recovery of matter. The last issue of Renewable Matter discussed the numbers at stake: every year, 50 to 60 billion tons of rock, stones, sand and gravel are mined and a further 45 billion tons of fossil fuels are extracted, whilst another 27 billion tons of biomass are moved about to produce energy.

These huge quantities have mammoth environmental impacts. In addition, the increasingly irregular fluctuations of the quantities extracted (raw material commodity prices have been declining for decades and have started to rise irregularly only recently) show that these impacts are no longer manageable through the old parameters of the linear economy that are based on endless expansion of both mining grounds and landfills. The market has registered the anomaly and perceived that something is wrong, but has not yet developed the instruments that can solve the problem. A new point of view is needed, one based on the etymology of the word resources (from resurgere, to rise again). That is why it is necessary to move towards a greater circularity of matter and energy. Such an approach implies a new map of economic, environmental and spiritual benefits. This means that new players need to emerge. Innovative businesses and economically viable enterprises that are able to meet these novel requirements.

Renewable Matter intends kick-starting a debate and track the players of this new economy in order to identify their needs and understand how best the new collective interests may defy the oligopolistic interests forged during the 20th century. A few questions are begging for answers. For instance, which market rules and opportunities support the development of the circular economy? Should public or private initiatives prevail? What kind of balance may be achieved between a free market and a “managed” market (i.e. one that is devoted to favour agents that are valued as being “virtuous”)?

Let us try to briefly identify some possible answers. For example, the circular economy pursues simultaneously both public interests (i.e. it is a smart strategy to increase collective welfare while minimising impacts on ecosystems) and private interests (i.e. adopted mostly by companies, although there are plenty of non-profit organizations venturing in this field). This means that there must be an economic benefit, an advantage for both individuals and communities, in circulating and recirculating flows of matter through production cycles. In the case waste flows, economic advantage kicks in at a precise moment: when the monetary value of collected materials is higher than the costs of recovery. At that very moment, the costs incurred during the collection, selection and recovery phases suddenly become business opportunities. 

We are currently witnessing a historic change: for many types of waste (commercial and industrial waste in particular) the economic benefit threshold has been crossed, collecting them is a profitable business and money can be made by selling them; for other fractions (especially urban waste) the target has not been achieved yet but we are getting closer. In this panorama, discussing operating models becomes paramount. What solutions can bring about the best environmental and economic results?

In the last 20 years, national waste management systems have been created, the so-called compliance schemes: organizations that deal with companies’ recovery and recycling duties according to the “manufacturer’s responsibility” principle. As per EU regulations (but this principle is already spreading at global level) manufacturers are responsible for the waste they generate but for their convenience they can recruit the help of an accredited organization – a compliance scheme – that will collect the required quantities providing fully traceable information at a cost. This is a formula already applied to several types of waste: packaging, electric and electronic waste, tyres, mineral and vegetable oils and batteries. This means that several dozens of millions of tons of recyclable material are managed and reintroduced into production cycles. 

Compliance schemes play a very special role because they establish a new balance between regulations and the market, between associations of companies and local governments, between free competition and managed market, between common goods and private interests. This balance is constantly evolving and compliance schemes play a crucial role in this innovation process: they are organizations that gradually lead society towards new solutions that can slowly become integrated into the market and economically viable. 

This is why our magazine wishes to start a direct discussion with the main international compliance schemes in order to create, based on the idea offered in this article, a useful proposal for the general public and companies. We must refine this model: what are the most effective tools in different socioeconomic environments? Some models look stronger and bound to last, others more suitable for transition periods. All systems react, more or less promptly, to public interest and environmental sustainability requirements and since they are essentially made up of companies, they must be economically viable for each player in the chain. The most effective models can be exported to countries lacking them, thus further extending the scope of the circular economy.

Europe's Recovery Depends on Green Fuel

by Antonio Cianciullo
Section
Editorials, February 2015
Network

The game of material recovery is gaining momentum. Much hesitation at European level is proof of a conflict of interest caused by the technological, industrial and philosophical revolution’s disruptive capability revolving around the value of recycling.

The curb put by Jean-Claude Junker – President of the European Commission – stopping the directive on circular economy prohibiting the dumping into landfills of recyclables and imposing the recycling of 70% of urban waste and 80% of packing waste by 2030 – is like déjà vu all over again. It is precisely in Rome that a certain government with little environmental education has long dismissed the potential of renewable sources, subsidizing clean energy, convinced as they were that it was a trifle, that sun and wind were good for the country properties of a few aged hippies but that they were unable to affect the interests of multinationals that have been controlling the oil scene for over a century in every possible way.

We all know how it all ended up. Today one light bulb out of three is illuminated thanks to clean energy and this new sector has created tens of thousands of new jobs. And just when we were reaping the fruits of such choice (despite the intermittent incentives) a curb was put in place aimed at punishing rather than saving. Thousands of jobs have been lost. A setback has taken place just where leading countries are making headway, thus showing that the growth of renewable sources is irreversible. We carry on paying the bill for innovation but, unlike what is occurring in Germany, where the expenditure is similar and the path has been carefully planned, part of the benefits are being thrown away.

Now it seems as if the same situation might be repeated at a European level, by adding support to a far-sighted economy, that of material recovery. Behind schedule, Brussels recognizes the potential of the innovative economy and is afraid of the repercussions it might have on the old economy sectors. And yet, it was precisely the Commission’s experts that had put down in black and white the details of the potential of the bioeconomy, the central axis of material recovery: with a turnover of €2,000 billion, 9% of jobs, the opportunity to create further 130,000 jobs within 10 years, with a return of 10 euro of turnover per every euro invested in research by 2025.

Will the far-sighted expert analyses be obnubilated by the desire not to disturb last century’s potentates? It will largely depend on the reaction ability of European citizens. If the pressure to shift the attention from financial speculations that occur in a fraction of a second to activities benefitting over the decades prevails, Europe’s hesitation could only be temporary. Losing leadership over the bioeconomy and the sharing economy can indeed prove fatal for the innovative ability needed for the recovery of the Old Continent. For example, worldwide, bioplastics are expected to grow by 500% between 2011 and 2016; the sharing economy gave a good account of itself with its remarkable achievement of the car sharing that, in 2014 was all the rage in Italy and is now growing rapidly the world over; in the EU28 50% urban waste target is worth 875,000 jobs.

But this is not enough. The figures shown in this issue of Renewable Matter indicate that the current consumption trend of the planet contains an imbalance able to undermine the possibility of recovery and stabilization of the economy: a change of pace is needed at a global level. As Aldo Femia puts it, every year man moves between 50 and 60 billion tons of rocks, stones, sand and gravel, which is double the amount of that erupted by ocean volcanoes, three time as much as that carried to the sea by all rivers, 60 times higher than that due to wind erosion.

The fact that we turned the planet into a mine has an increasingly strong impact because the environment is devastated at the moment of the extraction of raw materials and the ecosystems are polluted at the moment of waste release. Such release often occurs in the atmosphere, used as a dump: the 36 billion tons of CO2 released every year alone are a good enough reason to raise the alarm for the climate calamity taking shape.

Such damage could largely be avoided by feeding back into the cycle what is extracted, through a reconversion of the production system that can offer – and is already doing so – interesting results from an economic and environmental standpoint. In 2011 – as Antonio Pergolizzi reminds us in these pages – the Italian industry employed about 35 million tons of raw materials from waste recovery and in the last 10 years it has doubled the number of workers in recycling companies (from 12,000 to over 24,000).

But a lot more could be done. The Italian balance in the field of the materials necessary to support the production system is still negative by 4.3 million tons, worth €2.2 billion: we throw away precious goods only to buy them again. Wasting is no longer acceptable. 

There is an opportunity for further growth in the recycling sector, acting as a driving force for an economy with a high level of innovation and social cohesion. One only needs to look in the right direction. To the future.

 

Graphic re-elaboration of a detail from Atlas Holding the Celestial Sphere by Guercino (1646), image courtesy of NASA

Towards Renewable Matter


Section
Editorials, November 2014
Network

 

This magazine is intended as a virtual roundtable. Our objective is to represent the share of society and of the international economy – which is far more significant than the media would like us to believe – that have proved to be ready for a change we deem unavoidable. It includes tens of millions of people who have changed their lifestyle focussing their renewed attention on health and the environment, companies that have been able and brave enough to innovate in order to remain competitive, universities and research centres that have promptly geared their activities towards the more pressing needs of innovation and civil society’s organizations overseeing politics meant as the ability to take steps to protect common interests.

Such virtual roundtable will not rely on a predefined and detailed model, but on a ladder of priorities based on the physical limitations of the planet and areas of analysis accommodating the most innovative visions of economy and society drawing on the concept of bioeconomy, circular economy, sharing economy, blue economy and green economy. Moreover, faced with the seriousness of change forced by what is simplistically defined as a “crisis”, it is necessary to reason and act on all fronts: from the economy to the environment, from resource management to the solutions to improve social cohesion.

Our challenge is to set up a fresh and more comprehensive network of alliances stemming from widespread interests and genuine needs in order to create more jobs, more security (both environmental and social), more welfare and stability. It is a path still in the making, whose timing and modalities have yet to be defined. For the journey ahead, the 70’s can act as our starting point. We have learnt our lesson. Following the oil shocks that undermined energy security that relied on the progressive expansion of fossil fuels, a new concept of renewable energy emerged. 

It took nearly forty years for that perspective to turn into reality and become established but now, albeit amongst many contradictions and hesitations, the International Energy Agency’s projections leave no doubt: renewable sources will be at the forefront in a shorter span compared to the time elapsed between the energy crisis of 1973 to the present day. 

While standing on the first pillar the direction is all the more clear. Today, the march towards renewable energy can only be slowed down, but not reversed. Therefore, time has come to add a second pillar: that of renewable matter. It is a considerable conceptual leap implying an overturn of the current dominant viewpoint. Up until now, the industrial production generated a one-way material flow, turning part of nature into a mine and another into a dump, passing off pollution and environmental degradation as unavoidable collateral damage. On the other hand, the renewable matter approach views the environment as a key resource – the major asset for all possible exploitations and whose yield can be smartly utilised – and considers the materials involved in production as a continuous flow, in which single commodities are just the transitory steps matters goes through.

Such conceptual leap requires a change in language. Terms such as “virgin material”, “raw material”, “secondary raw material”, “waste”, “products and by-products” entail a values scales in which matter is progressively degraded (from virgin to raw material, from raw material to secondary raw material and so on and so forth). The concept of renewable matter ousts this old hierarchy by going beyond the idea of recycling as the only phase of reutilization, almost the exception that confirms the rule of a linear process. 

Within the “cradle to cradle” vision, transformation becomes crucial, a model that has passed the test of time with flying colours over three billion years of evolution of life on the planet. After use, matter breaks down into parts that get back into the cycle becoming what they were at the beginning or acting as input for other products and for industrial, energy or craft systems. Such perspective would be worth enhancing by creating “Tables of renewability” (inspired by Mendeleev’s Periodic Table) classifying the ability of each material to regenerate and to be reutilized according to its structure and the technological and environmental abilities available.

Our magazine, through the ideas and personal experiences introduced in its articles, intends to divulge a radical revolution in conceiving the production cycle. Such a revolution can no longer be held back because in the new millennium the old system has lost its material base. Commodity prices (basic raw materials) are constantly on the rise and dwindling resources cause uncertainties in the production system. In Europe, unemployment has soared to alarming levels for society. The climatic crisis poses a challenge to common sense, with the scientific community warning against the serious threat of a disaster deriving from the increase in greenhouse gases, rising CO2 emissions and the inability of the political system to find a global solution.

Against this background, new opportunities are emerging requiring a reassessment of the relationship between global and local as well as the relationship with the environment becomes more and more crucial. While to date, only few businesses have influenced the rules of production and growth, from now on environment-committed companies will have the opportunity to show to the production world how efficient systemic thinking can be on a smaller geographical scale. A grassroots approach can be a practical answer to the problems of economically and environmentally out-of-control globalization.

Since the above-mentioned overarching change could be applied to any production or social activity, it would be wiser to focus on situations where a change of perspective appears more mature. Although different, there are three fields sharing this new way of thinking. They are deeply interconnected (commodities, biomaterials, waste) and share one common factor: the environment.

Commodities. Raw materials represent the core of the problem. Their flow influences economic trends and income distribution. Current market globalization and the growing importance of financial activities in economic systems make it all the more complex. It is an ever-changing scenario that can be transformed radically by the recent trend of replacing goods with services (i.e. cars and photocopiers are loaned for use rather than owned). 

Biomaterials. They are materials coming from the organic realm (produce and waste from organic production chains) and as such they can be regenerated in a relatively short time so they can be considered renewable. Overall, they represent an inexhaustible mine of environmentally low-impact materials that, thanks to technological innovation, can become sources of supply for many industries, thus creating an alternative to conventional raw materials. Biofuels, nowadays used even for aircrafts, or bioplastics, whose range of uses spans from packaging to medical surgical technology, are a case in point.

Waste. As it has become clear over recent years, waste is no longer a price to pay for the production system but it rather represents an efficiency deficiency that we are trying to fix. In a period of economic crisis, the fact that waste is just “a misplaced resource” becomes more and more measurable in monetary terms. It is evident how the huge flow of materials transformed into waste cannot be discarded and must be exploited in some way. But how? There are several possible approaches depending on the level of innovation in the making of a product. If the manufacturer, inevitably generating waste, does not take care of the possible uses of that “waste”, then its exploitation and reutilization becomes difficult. On the other hand, if the maker of a product has devised an efficient reutilizing strategy, the quantity of wasted materials becomes minimal, amounting only to the entropy inherent in any transformation process. Nowadays there are already some materials that go through the “waste” stage with minimal loss of value. Thanks to suitable treatment, they can offer the same performance they had at the beginning of the production cycle. But the majority of materials is partially reutilized or dumped into landfills.

The Environment. The environment is involved in all the flows outlined so far. Raw materials, both organic and inorganic, are taken from the soil. Biomaterial and biofuels derive from crops that inevitably prevent other uses of the same land. Waste has an impact on the environment or causes climate-changing emissions that, in turn, affect soil’s quality and yields. In order to harmonize a different industrial strategies, two essential elements are needed. A systemic approach without which there is a risk of becoming inefficient, namely you gain with one hand while losing with the other. And, secondly, the ability to create common interests capable of steering such transformation.

From the Post-War Era we have inherited a thriving society that is now threatened by pollution and a diminishing social cohesion. These problems cannot be solved by erecting defensive walls to stop innovation but by building bridges towards an engaging future. Renewing energies, materials and relations is the way forward.