Inspiration for a greener tanning industry from the Arzignano tanning district.

Italian recycling champions

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by Valentina De Marchi, assistant professor, University of Padua

In the tanning industry as in virtually all manufacturing sectors, waste management is a particularly complex problem, and at the same time a great challenge.

According to Eurostat data, in 2012 in the EU-28 they have been produced 2.5 billion tons of waste, equivalent to about 98 tons per active company, 17 tons per worker, 5 per resident citizen. 15% of this mountain of waste was made in Italy, equivalent to an average, lower but still not very reassuring, of 41 tonnes for active enterprise, 10 tonnes per employed, 2.7 per man, woman or child who is resident in the country.

While most of the attention of the public opinion is focused on municipal waste, three-quarters of this mountain is determined by special waste, that is derived from commercial or industrial activities. The inflection of 3.4% of the total hazardous waste produced in Italy between 2011 and 2013 – listed in the 2015 report on hazardous waste written by ISPRA – is a small consolation compared to 131,606,999 tons produced last year, also considering that in North Italy, the largest producer of this waste, this figure has even increased (in Veneto, however, the third region in this sad list, volumes remained fairly constant). The manufacturing activities have been responsible for a quarter of these volumes, and more than a third of the hazardous waste.

In short, a mass too massive to remain unnoticed, especially when considering its impacts on the health and sustainability of resources. Driven by public opinion and by the evidence of the scientific community, waste management has become a priority in the European context, which has asked companies to take on especially in sectors and production stages where waste products are more polluting. A priority that might not represent just a cost for companies (the cost for the subdivision of waste, for the disposal, for their reduction ex ante, for the development of management and recovery technologies) but which might also open important business opportunities . The waste mountain that looms over manufacturing Italy  is a peak to climb characterized by track being still pretty unexplored, but offering breathtaking views.

Public opinion has particularly focused on the vicious side, telling the sad reality of the wild and uncontrolled disposal of hazardous waste, eco-crimes and eco-mafias that over the years got rich by violating the most basic principles of respect for people and the environment. But there is also another side, yet to tell and value, which suggests that alternative routes are possible, where the refusal is not considered as a cost but rather an asset. Far from the spotlight, in Italy there are many companies that have made recycling the source of their business, even in traditional manufacturing sectors. In many cases, these are companies that have seen the possibility of using waste to create value as an opportunity for differentiation , in some cases even managing to tick of lowesr prices. In some cases, it has been a necessity. Many of the first ‘virgin’ materials, are in fact becoming increasingly scarce, and therefore expensive, both because of the uncontrolled exploitation of existing sources and for the increase in population and consumption.

Take the case of the Saviola Group specializing in the production of wood and furnishing components, among the 300 largest industrial companies in Italy. The entire business of the group is based on the intuition of turning wood waste, collected through a diffuse and extensive network, in new , ecological boards being also low-costs, thanks to a complex technological process developed by the company itself. In this way, not only will it reset competitive differential determined by the fact that in Italy the forest area is much smaller and therefore the rising costs of virgin wood than those in which they can enjoy the largest producers of international panels, but it has created a new market – that of ecological and 100% recycled boards that responds to the demands of a growing population of ethic consumers, especially in the Nordic countries.

Another illuminating example concerns the multinational firm Aquafil, based in Trento; specializing in the production of nylon 6 yarn , that has developed an innovative alternative – Econyl® – made with 100% recycled nylon. Thanks to this result, the company not only increased its power with respect to its main clients, interested in the possibility to use it for the production of carpet or sportswear of affordable ecological fibers being comparable with market alternatives, but has also profited by entering into new businesses,, that of recycling and energy-producing, supporting an increase of 40% turnover from 2006 to present.

Examples of companies that have seen in the waste a potential to create new markets and a way to attack new niches are innumerable, especially in the upstream stages of the production chain, where Italy boasts an international leadership. Many of them, often the more structured, are specialised in the recycling and production of secondary raw materials. In other cases, they are companies that enhance the waste by giving them a new use, such as Italian Stone from Verona, which produces ricomposito quartz slabs for interior and exterior (even) from reuse of cleaning dirt, or the smaller Momaboma and Masquemas, specialising in the production of bags and eco-chic accessories from reused materials such as disused sails, vinyl records, old clothing.

In dense production contexts – ‘industrial parks’ or industrial districts – the ability to create a circular economy, where waste can become a direct source of value, is particularly attractive, because the need to reduce the mountains of waste produced is compelling and because there are more opportunities for synergies between companies, arranged in ways that the waste of a company can become an input for another. This side of the mountain is however not an easy plateau. Creating value from waste – saving by reducing them, creating innovative products from reuse, recycling them to save on raw materials – is certainly affordable for companies of all sizes and specializations but requires, even before significant technological investment – which are indispensable in several cases – a paradigm shift, which free the creativity caged by conceiving the waste as a problem to solve rather than an opportunity.


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