The circular economy, perfection in a circle


Where do you start to draw a circle? Below follows a summary of this issue, which was addressed in Milan, on 30 November at the Design Summit 2017. Now in its second year, the Summit was organised by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, in order to “observe and discuss people, trends and design projects.”

The circle we are talking about is not just a simple geometric figure, but that of the circular economy. And the goal set by the event was to work out “how to get started.”

“To be honest, we know that many have already started,” said Barbara Stefanelli, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Corriere della Sera, in her opening remarks, “but while it is true that focussing on sustainability is the most effective strategy for planning a better future, it is just as true that it is difficult to identify the best way to get started.” This is why the conference’s speakers included representatives of those companies (including our Group), which, in Stefanelli's words, have managed to find their way for some time now.

“The circular economy tends to marginalise industries, especially those on which the conventional economy is built, such as the energy industry, and forces you to adopt a new mentality. This is something that has happened very quickly in Italy,” said Domenico Sturabotti, Director of the Symbola Foundation, to the audience at the Sala Buzzati (“Buzzati Hall”), a short walk from the historic headquarters of the Milan-based newspaper: “With regard to eco-efficiency, the figures show that Italy is improving more rapidly than other European countries. For instance, today we are the leading country in the EU in terms of the impact of renewable energy on GDP, as well as in terms of recycled waste. And in general, it can be said that there is a significant increase in the propensity of companies to make green investments, with public utilities in the lead. We also see the concrete effects that this has on competitiveness, with an increase in turnover, hiring and exports. All this proves that going green pays off.”


Enel’s example

Sturabotti was followed by Andrea Valcalda, Enel's Head of Sustainability, who spoke about the Group’s vision of the circular economy and sustainability. “We are at the centre of a huge transition in the energy industry, from fossil to renewable energy sources: it is an irreversible global path and is happening far more quickly than you’d imagine. There is, after all, nothing more circular than energy from renewable sources. Today, in Italy, there are already thousands of users who produce their own energy, for example with solar panels installed on the roofs of their houses, and who feed the unused energy into the grid, thereby making a profit. It is a brand-new and disruptive model compared to the traditional one, but it offers great opportunities for those who are able to adapt quickly. We have done so with the V2G technology, which already offers the owners of electric cars the chance to transform them, when they are not being used, into batteries connected to the grid. This helps us stabilise the grid while providing electric car owners with an extra source of income. In Italy, to take another example, as part of the transition to renewables, we plan to decommission 23 traditional power plants, whose production capacity equals that of Greece. The question is: What do we do with all these plants? Do we just tear them down or leave them to rot, or do we turn them into useful facilities for local communities? We have chosen the latter, and in so doing have created a huge circular economy project. This is because the circular economy also means putting together totally different sectors to create shared value."

And it is precisely because the circular economy is often the meeting point between production sectors apparently lacking common interests that Enel was also invited to an event dedicated to design. It was attended by representatives of large companies in the furniture industry. In this regard, Valcalda offered a revealing example: “When we build a large plant abroad, elements such as photovoltaic panels arrive packaged in wooden structures. At a certain point, we realised that, at the end of construction, we had enormous quantities of spare wood. Taking this back to its point of origin would have entailed huge costs. So, we have developed projects involving local communities, where we train carpenters who then use the wood to make furniture and household items. In this way, we foster micro-entrepreneurship, establish a relationship of trust with local communities, recycle material and save on disposal costs, which would also have had an environmental impact.”

It is thanks to a series of projects like this, said Valcalda, and to a general vision that puts sustainability at the centre of the company's strategy, that our Group has won the trust of a militant, uncompromising organisation like Greenpeace.

Valcalda concluded his speech by saying, “In essence, it is simply a matter of common sense: in Italy, we have traditionally reused large and small objects. The difference is that today’s technology enables us to do so more effectively.”

If you’re drawing a circle that leads to the future, then the past is probably the best place to start.