Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil: Product of the Future
Earlier this year, Slovenian company Julon launched a high-tech investment project in Ljubljana. The company, owned by Italian synthetic fibres manufacturer Aquafil, has invested some EUR 17m into Econyl, a unique project which involves recycling of waste into the base material for the manufacture of fibres, foils and raw materials. According to president and chief executive Dr Giulio Bonazzi, it is work which means Slovenia is producing the product of the future.
Where was the actual procedure for Econyl developed?
Aquafil has always been very careful when it comes to the environment. In Trentino region, we have the strictest legislation in all Europe, stricter than in Germany, for example. We have always been obliged to be ecological and it has become part of our culture. We also understood that this was making us more competitive, to try to develop infrastructure and technology that was as respectful as possible to the surrounding environment.
Ten years ago, in Slovakia we tried to produce the main raw material that is used in our production process – caprolactam. It is a monomer produced by oil and is the basis to produce the polyamide 6. It is the spun into yarn used for carpets and for fabric. This past experience was very useful in our Econyl plant. Another part of the technology came from the experiences of large chemical companies; giants of the industry which tried to develop such technology but failed. Part of the technology was actually developed internally, by Aquafil staff – in cooperation with at least five different countries (Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, the USA and Germany) and also with the help of several universities. So, it was a long process that happened with cooperation and also by coincidence.
Can you explain the actual production process of Econyl?
We have a few people going around the world looking for post-consumer waste materials which are at the end of their life cycle, normally disposed at landfills or incinerated or even abandoned in the sea or on the beach. It is hard work taking into consideration that it is very difficult to source pure waste. By this I mean that usually final products are made of various substancies and not of polyamid 6 only. We ship this waste to our first location – Ajdovščina. There we have the first part of the preparation – the mechanical preparation. We prepare batches of waste. Then they arrive in Ljubljana and we start a mechanical and chemical process, without any solvents or dangerous materials. This is possible thanks to the chemical characteristics of polyamide 6 – it can be brought back into the original monomer state. Then, we properly purify it.
You recycle carpets and fish nets. Is there anything else?
These two things are amongst the largest. Carpet yarn is one of our main businesses. We make our products more environmentally friendly. Not only do we have a product that is sustainable, but the product of our client is also becoming sustainable. The industry itself is becoming sustainable. Carpets often compete with materials like wood, which are seemingly more sustainable because they come from renewable sources. We produce thousands different types of yarn, coming from the polymer. The polymer can be extruded and spun with a different thickness and colour. Ultimately, we have more than 20,000 different products. Theoretically, we can replicate all of them without any problem.
How recyclable is this material? Can you recycle it more times?
You can recycle it forever. That is part of the revolution. If you re-melt plastic, like a bottle, there is degradation each time and you are not able to continue recycling the product forever. In our case, you can recycle it forever because we produce the polymer, which is like the virgin one. The real problem is to collect the waste.
Where is it easiest to obtain waste for your recycling business?
Scandinavia is a good geographical area because they are starting some programmes to force fish farms and fishermen to collect nets at the end of their life and not throw them away. The government is starting to introduce and even force this issue. Canada is another good area. We are co-operating with British Columbia, where there are a lot of fishermen. The most common way to dispose of the nets is to leave them in the forest. We are now working with them to see if we can take them out and bring them here. For carpets, the USA is also interesting because in certain states it is already forbidden to dispose of certain carpets in landfill. So they are forced to bring them back to care or directly to the carpet producers that start the separation into different components. Europe is already behind. It is not as advanced as the USA. There is no legislation in Europe forcing people to collect these products, which is not good. It would be good if they started forcing people to start collecting things like this.
The logistics of all this collecting must be very difficult?
Yes, it is extremely difficult, it is like a miracle. I was lucky enough to visit some of these centres in the USA and saw all these carpets in many different sizes. It is very impressive, competitive and helps create new jobs. We are working with the United Nations and we have been involved in a project regarding India. We are now verifying the possibility to involve local people in recovering waste in landfills, make there the first separation and prepare it for shipping to us. There are already some programmes like that in New Delhi and in Mumbai (for plastic bags). We are trying to work with the Slovenian Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning to see if this is possible in the Mediterranean area – to free Mediterranean coasts from wild fish nets.
How cost effective is the production of Econyl?
That is an excellent question. The recycling process, in order to be really sustainable, must be profitable. If you do not make money, you are not sustainable. Sooner or later, you will shut it down. In terms of emissions and energy consumption this process is fully competitive with the process of producing the same raw material from non-renewable sources or from oil. To implement the sustainability of our Econyl plant we are planning to power it with renewable energy. In our Arco plant in Italy we produce around 90 percent of the energy internally. Also, the energy we purchase for all other Italian plants is completely from renewable sources – hydroelectric power. It costs us more, but it is a matter of philosophy. Our dream is to have solar energy or wind energy in Slovenia. The future is to try to go into renewable sources of energy.
Why do you think that this is the technology of the future?
To get out of this crisis, the world is going to have to change. A good example is construction. In the past, who would have built houses like they do today? You have to consider consumption of energy, possibly even production of energy, natural ventilation, etc. When you buy a car, you consider buying one that consumes less energy. Nowadays people are also buying hybrid or electrical cars. It is the same with us. We have to innovate and bring into the market something that is more respectful to the environment, possibly in a closed loop – not taking anything from the earth and not leaving anything in the earth at the end of the cycle. That is why we believe that this is the future. If you see a product in the shops which is of the same quality and costs about the same, except that it is recycled, I am sure you would buy the recycled one. Raw materials are becoming so rare that it is not good to drill for oil, it is better to recycle.
Econyl is currently produced only in Slovenia. Do you have plans to introduce it elsewhere?
Our dream is to have another plant in the USA. From a logistical standpoint, the USA is the ideal location, but it was possible to realise this project here because we had the space and the infrastructure, otherwise the EUR 20m investment would have had to be more than doubled.
What are your future plans in Slovenia?
We have about 2,000 people working for Aquafil – in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Belgium, Germany, Thailand, the USA and Turkey. Apart from Turkey and Belgium, there are production facilities in all these countries. In Berlin, we have 25 engineers who are developing plans to produce different types of polymers.
In terms of the number of employees, Slovenia, together with Italy, is our most important country. Italy is first, Slovenia is second and Croatia is third. In Croatia, the activities are controlled from Slovenia. If you put Slovenian and Croatian activities together, they are larger than in Italy – Slovenia and Croatia together have more than 900 employees, while in Italy we have 850. It is essential for us to be successful here and keep investing in modern technology, quality and so forth. With Econyl, this was the centre where we invested most of the money. We did not invest only in Econyl, but also in improving and enlarging the rest of the production. We are still investing and we think we will increase the number of employees in this country. We hope the business environment will remain positive for us.
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