Landfills are my gold mines.
Perpetuum mobile. It sounds like a fairy tale. Giulio Bonazzi and his company Aquafil transform waste into high-quality yarn. And the best thing about it: This process can be repeated as often as you like - without any loss of quality. Aquafil is still at the beginning. But the market is huge. And the technology is unique.
Like gigantic spider webs, defective fishing nets traverse the oceans. They now account for almost ten percent of the plastic waste that ends up in the world's oceans every year. Depending on the estimates used, this is between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes per year.
Since the networks only decompose after 600 years, the problem is getting bigger and bigger. Sea animals get caught in the kilometer-long arms and die miserably. Even new fishing nets get entangled and become unusable. New garbage is created. A vicious circle.
Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since its invention in 1950 according to a study by the University of California, only about seven percent was recycled. The rest ended up as garbage in our environment, mainly in our seas. To ever want to master such quantities seems a hopeless undertaking. How do we get rid of the plastic spirits we called?
For a few years now, the Italian company Aquafil has set itself the goal of cleaning the oceans of old fishing nets. Its divers scour the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and salvage discarded or abandoned nets. In the Philippines and Cameroon, fishermen even receive premiums if they do not even dispose of their nets in the sea, but hand them over immediately.
Why is Aquafil doing this? After all, Aquafil is not an environmental activist or a non-profit organisation, but a profit-oriented company whose shares have been listed on the Milan Stock Exchange since December 2017. "For us these are valuable raw materials," explains Giulio Bonazzi, boss and main owner of Aquafil. Because the company produces clothing from old nylon nets. Or carpeting. Or covers for car seats. "Landfills," says Bonazzi, "are my gold mines."
Behind this is the development of a groundbreaking innovation. Giulio Bonazzi has succeeded in doing what no one before him has done. He invented a technology that makes it possible to transform nylon waste back into the primary raw material nylon 6 with no loss of quality. From this, Aquafil then produces nylon yarn - Bonazzi called it Econyl, a symbiosis of ecological and nylon. Waste becomes raw material.
Raw material becomes waste. And waste becomes raw material again. The procedure can be repeated as often as desired. Giulio Bonazzi has thus created a perfect production cycle that generates 100 percent raw material from 100 percent waste again and again.
Bonazzi has long been collecting not only old nylon fishing nets, but also useless nylon carpets and production waste as well as industrial plastic waste. To this end, he has set up a worldwide take-back programme that extends from the USA and Canada, through Turkey, Greece and Norway, to Egypt, Pakistan and Thailand. "When I started, many people thought I was crazy. But I wasn't crazy. I was just blue-eyed. And that was a good thing."
Giulio Bonazzi grew up in a family that had grown up through the production and processing of nylon yarns. And where work always came first. "I was raised that way," he remembers. "Seeing my parents meant seeing them at work. Spending time with them meant taking part in business lunches with them. The theme of nylon yarns determined my entire childhood and youth."
It is one of those stories which were possible in Italy at that time and which tell of initiative, carelessness and the happiness of the brave.
Giulio Bonazzi was born in 1963 as the youngest of four children. Father Carlo and mother Silvana had started sewing pieces of fabric for nylon raincoats together in a garage in Verona in 1956. Their starting capital was four sewing machines and six workers. "Why," they asked themselves a few years later, "should we just sew raincoats together for others? Why don't we make whole raincoats?"
A little later, Carlo and Silvana Bonazzi thought further: "Why should we only make nylon raincoats? Why don't we produce the fabric ourselves?" A few years later they asked themselves: "Why don't we also make the thread for our fabric ourselves?
"My parents," says Giulio Bonazzi, "did not have to worry about possible buyers at this point. You've already had this: yourself. Today it's called vertical integration."
When Giulio Bonazzi joined the company in 1989 as the last child, the company had long since left the era of nylon raincoats behind. At that time Aquafil produced nylon yarns for carpets. The company has 450 employees and an annual turnover of between 40 and 45 million euros.
Today, the number of employees is 2746, and consolidated group sales have increased tenfold to almost half a billion euros. The company has 15 branches on three continents and in eight countries. This quantum leap is Giulio Bonazzi's work.
Giulio was the only one lucky enough to be able to study. At the age of 23, he completed his business administration studies at the University of Venice - as one of the five best of his year. Then he goes abroad to gain experience. He works for carpet manufacturers in Belgium and the USA. When he finally joined the company, Aquafil was still a very regional company. The market is Italy and a little Europe. Bonazzi realizes that he has to internationalize the company. He buys a factory in Slovenia.
In order to integrate the plant into the existing structures, he not only sends his best employees from Italy to Slovenia, but also moves there himself for several years. Today, the plant in Slovenia plays a key role in Aquafil's success, as the first depolymerization plant for Econyl was commissioned here in 2011.
In 1999, Bonazzi founded a factory in Cartersville, Georgia, for the processing and sale of nylon yarns on the US market. 2007 will see the construction of a further plant to develop the Asia-Pacific market in Rayong, Thailand. Now Aquafil is a not to be overlooked point on the worldwide nylon market. The market is now huge. Nylon 6 can be found almost everywhere: in textiles and clothing, in carpeting and car seat covers, in household items, dowels, toothbrushes, ropes, nets, tents or strings of stringed instruments. In 2017 alone, more than five million tons of Nylon 6 were produced worldwide.
Aquafil produces two types of nylon yarns: yarns for the production of textile floor coverings (BCF) and yarns for the production of clothing (NTF).
In the BCF sector, Aquafil is the world's second largest manufacturer and market leader in Europe. Today, the Italians generate more than 80 percent of group sales or 400 million euros in this area. The yarns are mainly used in carpets for offices, hotels or living areas as well as in the automotive industry for car seat trim and upholstery.
Aquafil produces 20000 different products per year in this business unit, developing new yarns with innovative properties: they inhibit fire, they have an antibacterial effect and they repel dirt.
The second mainstay is the production of yarns for clothing. It is responsible for almost 20 percent of Group sales. Aquafil's NTF yarn is used to make conventional textiles, especially sportswear and swimwear.
On the way there, Giulio Bonazzi poses a problem that can hardly be solved. Like everything that is synthetic, the basic product nylon 6 is made from petroleum and is not biodegradable. The recycling of nylon 6 is not profitable either. The process is simply too costly and consumes too much energy. At the same time, however, from the early 2000s onwards the market increasingly demanded materials that were produced sustainably and that had a better ecological balance.
Doing what? "Sustainable production," says Giulio Bonazzi, "is no longer optional in a business like mine. Those who need a lot of energy and fossil raw materials must produce sustainably if they want to survive on the market in 20 years' time. We had to think of something." But thinking about something - research and development - is initially expensive. Bonazzi needs money. Money he doesn't have. In 2009, he sold 22.5 percent of the shares in the private equity fund Hutton Collins for 45 million euros. Why didn't he finance himself with bank loans? "Quite simply," says Bonazzi, "the banks did not believe in my idea of recycling. They thought I was crazy."
Giulio Bonazzi uses Hutton Collins' money to pay off his siblings and also buys his father's company shares. He puts the rest into the development of Econyl.
The new technology costs 25 million euros and four years of research. But it's worth every cent and every minute. Because now the recycling of nylon 6 is more profitable than the production of new nylon from fossil origin.
"There was nothing like it," he says. "So we had to completely rethink and reinvent everything: the method as well as the equipment and industrial facilities." The trial is so secret, Bonazzi didn't even patent it. "If we'd had him patented," he says, "we would have had to disclose the technology. That was definitely too dangerous for us."
What is fascinating is that the recycled nylon has exactly the same properties and quality as the newly manufactured nylon. It's identical. And this despite the fact that it is produced 100 percent from waste. And at the end of its useful life, it is 100 percent recyclable. What Bonazzi does is therefore strictly speaking not recycle, but regenerate. And it opens up a market worth billions and a completely new form of circular-flow economy.
The big manufacturers of clothing and sportswear have long since become aware of Econyl. The German sporting goods manufacturer Adidas produces its new swimwear collection from Econyl. Speedo from Great Britain also manufactures its swimwear from Econyl and has also launched the world's first take-back programme for it. Hennes & Mauritz uses the fabric for its Conscious Exclusive Collection. And with Levi Strauss & Co. Aquafil is developing a new collection in which Econyl is added to the denim fabric.
"Cotton", explains Giulio Bonazzi, "is a very problematic raw material. Although it is a renewable natural fibre, its production is also extremely water-intensive and leaches out the soil. "And a lot of chemistry is still needed to dye cotton. The partial replacement by Econyl could also bring great advantages for the environment.
The production of Econyl still accounts for only 35 percent of Aquafil's annual production. But according to Giulio Bonazzi, all Aquafil nylon yarns will eventually consist of regenerated nylon. "The goal is not to take resources from the planet, but to recycle all waste."
By 2017, Aquafil contained 35,000 tons of nylon-containing waste. The company produced 32000 tons of Econyl from it. This has enabled the emission of almost 175000 tonnes of CO2 to be avoided. This corresponds to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 30000 cars circling the equator.
The process also conserves resources in other respects. The production of Econyl saved more than 200,000 barrels of crude oil in 2017. And more than three million gigajoules of energy. That's as much as the entire city of Rome consumes in 15 days.
The USA and the EU alone produce more than 15 million tonnes of textile waste a year, containing one million tonnes of nylon 6. Valuable raw material for Aquafils depolymerization plants. "Every form of industrial production," says Giulio Bonazzi, "generates waste. We reduce global waste by collecting recyclables from landfills and fishing from the oceans and returning them to the production cycle."
In order to regenerate even more nylon waste in the future, Bonazzi needs more plants and additional money. That's why last year he floated almost 40 percent of Aquafil on the Milan Stock Exchange. The private equity fund Hutton Collins sells its shares as part of the IPO. The company will receive more than 40 million euros in liquidity. However, with 58 percent of the shares owned and more than 69 percent of the voting rights, Giulio Bonazzi remains majority owner and decision maker of Aquafil.
A new plant is now being built in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. And in China, Aquafil is expanding thanks to the recent acquisition of the nylon division of the US company Invista, one of the world's largest producers.
For Giulio Bonazzi himself, expansion cannot go fast enough.
On the wall above his desk hangs a huge photograph. Sky can be seen on it, a strip of water and much salt-crusted, barren, dead ground. In the middle, between weathered and sun-bleached branches, there is a small human skull - and an hourglass. "Time is running out," says Giulio Bonazzi, "the countdown has long since begun." ®
Author: Sabine Woodcutter