Success is never the result of the efforts of a single individual. Even great solo sailors like Ellen MacArthur and Giovanni Soldini require the contribution of planners and experts to successfully complete their ocean crossings. The same can be said of a large environmental organisation like CONOU, the Italian National Consortium for the Collection, Management and Treatment of Used Mineral Oils. 

The organisation, founded in 1984, has its roots in the aftermath of WWII, at a time when necessity prevailed over ideology and recycling practices emerged from a lack of much-needed lubricating oil, rather than from environmental concerns that were still far off in the horizon. CONOU’s history is especially significant because it highlights – with many year’s experience and by achieving significant results – the strong desire to unite motives tied to environmental protection with economic convenience. This has occurred thanks to an ability to understand Italy’s cultural, social and economic transformations, and enact related strategies. Today, CONOU has become one of the most virtuous examples of circular economy in all of Europe. Throughout its existence, the Consortium has consolidated its systemic reach, coordinating the needs of collectors and regenerators of used mineral oils. The result is that the final output is proportional to the forces at play and compliant with a mandate that expects intransigent adherence to the rules. 


Continent-Leading Results

Today, thanks to the Consortium’s organisation, 99% of collected oils are sent for regeneration to produce base oil, bitumen and diesel. Between 1984 and today, CONOU has collected 6 million tonnes of used oil, 5.3 million of which have been sent for regeneration: this has resulted in the production of 3 million tonnes of regenerated oils. Over the years, this has saved Italy 3 billion euros in national energy spending. In 2018 alone, 187,000 tonnes of used lubricant were collected, a further increase on the previous year. According to GEIR (Groupement européen de l’Industrie de la régénération) this is the highest possible collectable amount in this context, placing Italy at the top of European and international leader boards.


The Value of Creating a System

The efficiency of CONOU’s action draws its strength from the synergy and integration that exist among all the sector’s components, starting at the point of collection. Over time, the Consortium’s intervention has enabled the transformation of small, poorly-structured businesses into companies with an industrial framework able to operate on a national scale, avoiding logistical waste. These companies have managed to be flexible in their activity, reorganising and adapting their managerial and infrastructural set-up in accordance with the needs of an increasingly accurate and specialised collection activity. This type of progress has also been made possible thanks to managerial support from CONOU. The Consortium’s partners, over 90% of which can boast the ISO 14001 environmental management certification, are today able to rise to the new goal that CONOU is imposing: to improve the quality of used oil. This challenge requires constant action to raise awareness among producers of used lubricants, so that they adopt all necessary measures in separating industrial waste. This compliance with current regulations avoids the risk of contamination, which would render recycling and regeneration difficult, if not impossible.

This level of discipline has been progressively extended to all stakeholders. This is reflected in the road show that the Consortium conceived and developed together with Confindustria (the Italian Industrial Confederation) with the goal of promoting the issue of quality of stockpiled and collected oils among businesses. The initiative, named CircOILeconomy, has already involved some of Italy’s most important industrial districts, from the area surrounding Brescia to the one that feeds into the Porto Marghera refinery hub, near Venice. The road show is expected to continue its journey, reaching more of the country’s important industrial areas. The diffusion of correct information regarding the management of used mineral oils is one of CONOU’s founding tenets. Having reached an agreement with Confindustria, the Consortium is now planning to sign similar accords with other large representative organisations, whose partners include multi-service companies with extensive logistical means. 


The Great Challenge of Regeneration

The life of used industrial oils is getting longer – even multiplying – thanks to the intervention of the regeneration industry, and Italy is the European leader in this field. In this case as well, the supremacy is the result of a forward-thinking strategy that involved a profound rationalisation of the national plant-engineering network, focusing on the development of three main refinery sites. As was the case with collection, the Consortium provided supportive action throughout the process. From the beginning, it saw the need to take into account economic parameters and market trends which presented numerous complexities. For its part, the regeneration industry provided investments and technological innovation that allowed it to process types of used lubricants that until a few years ago had to be destined for energy recovery through combustion or thermal destruction. Approximately 30% of “new” lubricant oil put on the Italian market is a regenerated product, which has clear financial benefits as it decreases the need to import oil. The regeneration industry, much like collection companies, has followed a process of sustainable development that culminated in the achievement of EMAS certification, reinforcing the entire sector’s strategy of committed environmental efforts. 



Groupement européen de l’industrie de la régénération (Geir),