What is environmental sustainability and how to transform the company and its routines into an innovative company in this new reality? The confusion is great and the risk is to remain bogged down in a maze of “green labels” without understanding the extraordinary scenarios of development and progress. Sustainability, on the other hand, is a process of awareness of the scenarios and knowledge necessary for the ecological transition of our economic and social system, with which to face the challenges of innovation.
One of the fundamental assumptions of the environmental sustainability of the activities of the production and consumption system must be based on the characteristic of self-organization; our interference with nature henceforth must be a self-regulated technical cycle from a pattern similar to nature’s “non-equilibrium”. For this we need a technical cycle of use, reuse and recycling of resources, designed with all possible intelligence, so that it finds its self-regulating structure in the connection hinges between public and private and in the multiplicity of operators. A system, therefore, planned to reuse energy and materials in subsequent production cycles, reducing waste and waste as much as possible; there will always be a need for resource inputs from the biosphere and there will be wastes to the biosphere but these flows can be harmonized. The linear economic model, on the other hand, “extraction-use-abandonment” is based on the accessibility of large quantities of resources and energy and is less and less suited to the reality in which we find ourselves operating.
In the linear system, initiatives in support of efficiency – which work towards the reduction of resources and fossil energy consumed per unit of production or even with “compensation” mechanisms – can delay the crisis of the economic model, but they are not enough to solve the problems given by the dynamics of our biosphere and by the finite consistency of the stocks. The transition from the linear model to a new model is therefore necessary, which in considering all phases, from design, to production, to consumption, to the end of each product’s life, is able to seize every opportunity to limit the contribution of material and energy input and to minimize waste and losses, paying attention to the prevention of negative environmental emissions (including landfill and incineration) (Fig. 1).
Quando è stato coniato il termine economia circolare non si intendeva un sistema economico e sociale basato sul sistema del “riciclo” e sul recupero energetico (inceneritori) per la riduzione dei rifiuti in discarica. On the contrary, it meant a system of efficient use of our planet’s scarce resources and, finally, a real balance achieved with eco-design which has as its objective the reuse of materials in the technical cycle, or in the biological cycle of biodegradability or compostability of the materials themselves (Fig. 2).
The technical or industrial cycles include:
– chemical recycling: thermal or chemical processes that make it possible to re-obtain the starting raw materials that can be reused in the chemical industry;
– mechanical recycling: mechanical processes that differentiate, chop, recover the material to be reused in other industrial processes.
Biological cycles include biodegradability or compostability:
– biodegradability: it is the ability of substances and materials, to be through the enzymatic activity of microorganisms. A biodegradable substance is degraded into simpler elements that can be absorbed into the soil;
– compostability: a material is said to be compostable when, following its natural or industrial degradation, it is transformed into compost; becomes nutrient for the soil.
In the circular approach it means reviewing all stages of production and paying attention to the entire supply chain involved in the production cycle. This attention passes through the respect of some basic principles:
This attention passes through the respect of some basic principles: To achieve this, it may be useful to immediately think about their use at the end of their life, therefore with characteristics that will allow them to be shared, extended in life, reused, restructured, disassembled, recycled and finally regenerated;
2) modularity and versatility , i.e. giving priority to the modularity, versatility and adaptability of the product so that its use can be adapted to changing conditions;ted;
3) renewable energies and regenerative approach, i.e. relying on energies produced from renewable sources favoring the abandonment of the energy model based on fossil sources.
Think holistically, paying attention to the whole system and considering the cause and effect relationships between the different components
However, the principles of the circular economy alone are not enough. The biological and technical cycles are intended to collaborate and, used consistently, they can represent alternative and/or integrated solutions to ensure the coexistence of economic and social progress with nature. This collaboration and integration can only be achieved through a deeper understanding of the self-regulatory mechanisms of nature itself. In biology, autopoiesis represents the first mechanism of learning and self-sustainability which becomes more complicated by evolving into a network of generative relationships of symbiosis up to including all the metabolic processes of the biosphere. It is a dense network of relationships and processes that constantly generate novelty, representing the very key to evolution. Even more surprising is learning that the essence of this evolutionary process in nature is not competition but collaboration. Diversity and harmony, therefore, generate progress; this must be the pivot of the non-equilibrium of the technical cycles integrated with those of nature. It is not possible to think that one technology (for example incinerators or a mega energy production plant) can represent the solution, on the contrary different technologies can integrate with each other and favor the proliferation of a dense network of generative relationships. We are on the threshold of a new era that includes new systems that learn by exchanging information. From this point of view we are far from the goals that the international communities themselves have set themselves; one of the critical problems remains, in fact, the bankruptcy system of waste recycling. The latter, based on a theoretical promise, allows us to continue producing inappropriate materials with the deception of recycling. In fact, the materials are not recovered due both to disassembly problems and to the chemical composition of the materials themselves. Even today they have their end of life in landfills or incinerators. An example of inadequacy of the recycling system is given by the pollution of the uncontrolled plastic cycle. In relation to the latter, in fact, despite the potential for recovery and recycling, it has been found that only 14% is actually collected for recycling, while most of the millions of tons produced annually are destined to be dispersed into the environment. in landfills and incinerators, with all the consequent toxic emissions in the latter case.
But how should the industrial production system adapt?
The development processes of new products or services of companies suffer from routines and habits; on the contrary, the new eco-design paradigm requires the integration of skills in strategy, industrial design, chemistry which makes all the old design processes inadequate for the new market challenges. The recommended route is to build an internal team of highly motivated people curious to discover new systems, with the integration of an external research group made up of a mix of strategists (who can make projects consistent with the reference markets of the company), chemists and environmental science experts, industrial designers to create new eco-compatible products or services together with the internal team. As stated in Unioncamere’s Green Report 2021 “in the period 2021-2025, 38% of the need for professions will require highly important green skills (about 1.3-1.4 million employed)” (https://www.symbola .net/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Presentazione-GreenItaly-2021.pdf).
The development processes of new products or services of companies suffer from routines and habits; on the contrary, the new eco-design paradigm requires the integration of skills in strategy, industrial design, chemistry which makes all the old design processes inadequate for the new market challenges. The recommended route is to build an internal team of highly motivated people curious to discover new systems, with the integration of an external research group made up of a mix of strategists (who can make projects consistent with the reference markets of the company), chemists and environmental science experts, industrial designers to create new eco-compatible products or services together with the internal team. As stated in Unioncamere’s Green Report 2021 “in the period 2021-2025, 38% of the need for professions will require highly important green skills (about 1.3-1.4 million employed)” (https://www.symbola.net/wp- content/uploads/2021/10/Presentazione-GreenItaly-2021.pdf).
Life cycle analysis (LCA) is an assessment method (defined in the ISO 14040 environmental management – life cycle assessment) standard for determining the environmental footprint of products or services throughout their life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, the transformation processes of semi-finished products, transport, distribution, consumption and the end of life of the product/service itself. Life cycle thinking, introduced in the Forethinking© Method, processes environmental feedback for a new concept of eco-design by enhancing the LCA tool as a “parametric” tool to implement a proactive innovation strategy (Fig. 4). The LCA study of the product or service is a virtuous activity that can be carried out in all sectors and is a degree of advanced knowledge that allows for the evaluation, in a broad and objective way, of the real contribution of a production system, product or service in relation to environmental aspects, without criminalizing one or the other solution or materials on the basis of summary judgments. One of the most frequent findings in the LCA study applied to various Made in Italy sectors is the impact of the waste of materials, minimally due to processing waste, mainly due to the absence of a product or system end-of-life design proposed (Fig. 5).
The materials, therefore, not only energy, represent one of the most important challenges for harmonizing the technical cycle of the production activity with the environment. For this challenge, one of the most important allies is chemistry. The Forethinking research, in collaboration with the Chemistry Department of the University of Bari, has created a materials screening protocol, including information on the chemical components indicated as dangerous by the Reach regulations and, in the case of the majority components, the analysis of the latter, even if not recognized as dangerous. The structure, the origin (fossil or renewable), the synthesis method (if declared or known) and any environmental hazards are evaluated for the chemical components of the analyzed materials. At the end of the evaluation of the chemical components of the material, the latter is evaluated in its entirety, making reference to reuse, recycling and biodegradability and to the possibility of including it within the technical or biological cycle. It is important to underline the difference between the reuse and recovery sections: the reuse section considers the option of using the material in another application without the need for it to undergo substantial treatments or modifications; in the recovery section, on the other hand, alternative methods of recycling (mechanical or chemical) are evaluated, or of disposal such as energy recovery, making sure that no toxic or harmful fumes are generated during the combustion process. In the biological cycle, on the other hand, the biodegradability of the product is evaluated. From these assessments, the need to consider alternative materials often emerges, i.e. the search for new materials and collaboration with the world of research is one of the most important strategic activities. In conclusion, the complexity of companies has increased both in terms of planning and in terms of procurement and supply chain renewal; the paths of innovation and the search for new competitive advantages cannot disregard assessments based on new knowledge and increasingly converging market trends on environmental sustainability issues. For this reason, the corporate responsibility reports of the new CSRD directive, corporate sustainability reporting directive (ESG, SDG’s) or the Ecolabel certifications of products will not be sufficient, most of the time mere compliance with now outdated standards and systems. In this scenario, confusion and greenwashing are the greatest danger for businesses, risking the obsolescence of products and services. Not even the status of benefit company will be sufficient if the latter is not really defined and integrated with the “core” purpose of the company itself. All these “compliance” mechanisms put together do not guarantee the primary objective of creating value for consumers and progressing the society of the future with new needs for balancing our planet’s resources. Sustainability, on the other hand, must be a strategy, an innovation project to give something tangible back to the “new” consumers; if there is no this “content” in sustainability programs, companies will have only uselessly consumed financial resources to tell or temporarily deceive everyone about the rosy future of the company itself, to the point of becoming so profoundly self-satisfied as to become short-sighted with respect to the new skills that they will change the world. The fourth industrial revolution is not given only by the progress of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics or the Internet of Things (IoT), green chemistry, but by the collaboration of this knowledge towards a much greater goal: the coexistence with the nature and elimination of waste.
The best guarantee for the success of this evolutionary process, precisely to encourage self-generation at all levels, is the participation of many different, small and large operators. This network needs to be fully built and we are just getting started.
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