Industrial symbiosis. A concept that can be either narrowed to the known role, at industrial level, of partnership, or developed into a 360-degree view. In the case of the circular economy, grafted onto sustainability, the latter solution is necessary in order to find solutions to today’s challenges. Indeed, because when low-intensity matter and energy sources are used, such as those derived from biomaterials or residues from industrial processing, it is necessary to exploit their full potential.
But it is not an easy thing to do, given the current production and market contexts. In order for the industrial practices linked to the circular economy to be effective they must abide by specific rules. First and foremost is that of the market, i.e. the extra cost compared to the well-established products, must not be extreme. In the region of 10-15% at the most compared to conventional productions. The second is that of processes, i.e. the new productions must not clash with the existing ones both from a processing and a cultural point of view. And the third rule is that of symbiosis, i.e. the intersection between matters and supply chains, which entails the existence of a shared background knowledge amongst companies.
These are three issues that most probably will be overcome over time, but today can become barriers that may hinder the “circular” spread of sustainable techniques and matters. Favini, a historic paper factory in Italy’s North East knows a thing or two about this. The company has been “contaminating” a well-established age-old product such as paper for years, through innovative practices, alternative materials and experimenting the intersection of supply chains, using natural raw materials which other industries consider waste and respecting the natural origin of paper while improving its sustainability and more and more its quality, both for end users and the environment. “At Favini’s we have four keystones characterizing the Crush process (the line of ecological papers made with agro-industrial by-products replacing up to 15% of cellulose from trees, editor’s note)” informs us Achille Monegato, Favini’s R&D director, talking about the industrial methods underpinning Crush papers. “In other words the product (basic raw material/secondary raw material, editor’s note), must be at the end of its life cycle in the original chain; it must be dry, evaluated and crushed.”
The above-mentioned keystones underpin Favini’s new sustainable production chain and patent for Crush papers allowing the company to act with new materials when the opportunity arises. This is what happened with Pedon Group, operating in the distribution of dry pulses. An experience where needs, experiences and supply chains intersected.
“We did not approach Pedon – adds Monegato – but it was the agrifood company that contacted us. Favini was not aware of what Pedon’s production residue was: or rather, we had the wrong idea since, before the meeting we thought we would find pods or skins, while our raw material/secondary raw material was rejected pulses because blemished.”
In order to get an excellent product, specific supply chain knowledge was needed, i.e. a kind of paper made with 25% of pulses, suitable for food. An even more sustainable end product since it makes pointless to use virgin carrier bags to isolate food from its container as it usually happens with packaging produced with recycled materials if they are not suitable to come into contact with food. “A lot of experience is necessary – highlights Monegato – in order to detect what is interesting in other supply chains.”
Communication about one’s activity is also important. And Favini’s experience is very interesting in this regard. “Veuve Clicquot – adds Monegato – was looking for a package which could also represent their new bio-champagne, while we, back then, had some difficulties in getting hold of algae (the raw material/secondary raw material used by Favini, over 20 years ago) because the eutrophication emergency in the Venice lagoon was over and we went back to France and Normandy where there was a similar emergency to the Adriatic. This hit the news which Veuve Clicquot saw on TV and they asked us if we were able to produce paper using their residue: de-alcoholised grape pomace.”
The result is a kind of packaging whose production supply chain has itself such a communication value that is able to push the company to show it with infographic details on the container itself. These are just two examples, but the circular economy, in the case of paper but also for other materials, could change the very nature of the product, also – and especially – through industrial symbiosis. This is what happened with Remake paper where two very different production chains intersect: the paper and leather sectors.
“I thought of leather when I read that collagen was fibrous and had a ‘left-handed helix with a quaternary structure’ (the collagen consists of 3 polypeptide chains that twist together to form a three-stranded helix, editor’s note) – carries on Monegato – like cellulose. So I said to myself: why don’t we try and combine these two fibres? That’s how we obtained a premium paper product, although we started from a different idea. Indeed, the original project was to produce a compostable kind of paper which could become feed for animals or used as fertilizers. In order to do so some organic nitrogen must be added. And this is found in collagen fibres.”
The prospect is to use such experience to innovate not just high-end products for the luxury good sector, but also lower added-value products. “We could – Monegato concludes – produce a kind of paper for mulching in agriculture with could decompose in three rather than seven months. It would be an innovative product which could have a low price because paper for mulching cannot be expensive.”
Here comes the market imposing also a price review, both for the end product and that of secondary raw materials which must have a low value when passing from a supply chain to the next: this is indeed a market issue. Adapting matter to several processes is a critical and crucial point. Drying, for instance, in Favini’s Crush production is crucial. Having to dry a by-product in order to make it compatible with the supply chain entails an energy cost, which affects its marketing and the environment unless, as it happens with Favini, renewable energy is used.
The destiny of paper with the development of the circular economy could be, through industrial symbiosis, that to become a composite material characterized by a specific innovation rate thanks to the movement of materials from one sector to the next. This involves an upcycling process that is not just about matter, but also about the value of the product, which should not be overlooked. This is a phenomenon that will open up unprecedented production scenarios for this sector, starting radical changes that ultimately shift the innovation focus of the sector from process (i.e. from machines) to materials and end products.
This is an important challenge because the increase in value of the end product, thanks to “waste of faraway supply chains,” could act as a powerful driver for the whole circular economy. Paper will play a twofold role as innovative forerunner and protagonist.
Top image: Illustration by Clovis-Cheminot – Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain