The Circular Economy: a case of Italian excellence

Published on Friday, 15 February 2019

The circular economy has gone from being a recycling and reuse-focused niche practice to become the new key to changing how entire countries work: a vision that brings together innovation and sustainability in the name of efficiency and competitive advantage.

This is why Enel decided to take on a leadership role in the sector and on 5 February hosted the workshop “Technologies Underpinning the Circular Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for the Italian Innovation Ecosystem:” a meeting of The European House - Ambrosetti think tank to facilitate the sharing of initiatives between businesses that are more advanced in terms of their circularity.

Enel’s journey to the circular economy was detailed by Head of Circular Economy Luca Meini. The first step was the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, a paradigm-changing example of the circular economy and circular energy. From there we moved on to other aspects involving our business, such as the Futur-e project to repurpose thermoelectric power stations that had reached the end of their working lives, and then circular cities, which expand on the concept of smart city extending the scope beyond the merely technological. To foster collaboration between businesses, our Group is also among the promoters of the Circular Economy Alliance alongside some other large companies.

The human dimension, however, was the focus of the speech by Enel’s Chief Innovability Officer Ernesto Ciorra. Underlining the centrality of creative innovation, he stressed that circular economy activities are driven forward in a synergic manner that also allows autonomy and liberty “like with a group of artists.” Alongside the circularity of things, the circularity of people is also important; this is particularly true in a socioeconomic context that is experiencing the progressive mechanisation of work. With this in mind Ciorra cited the example of the Fondazione Endesa, which has created a platform to help unemployed professionals over 50 to put their skills to valuable use as startup mentors.

Claudio Zara, a Professor at the Finance Department at the Bocconi University, outlined how finance is now taking an interest in the circular economy because of the opportunities it can create in terms of de-risking investments, potential revenue flows and reputation boosting. Because it involves a strong innovation component, the circular economy is of particular relevance to the sector of innovation-focused financing, which is critical for finance particularly due to the problem of information discrepancies. Voluntary information disclosure to the company’s financial stakeholders plays a fundamental role in removing this obstacle and making circular investment and financing appealing. 

It was then the turn of four “acts of faith in the circular economy” as moderator Alberto Di Minin, Professor of Management at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, dubbed them. These “acts” have been put into practice by the same number of firms. Having studied circularity indicators very closely, the Enel Group began involving its suppliers in an approach that takes into consideration products’ entire life cycles. Novamont, a producer of bioplastics and other biomaterials, “is a company that has circularity in its DNA” as it confirmed by signing a partnership with Enel.

Techniques such as using residual steam from heat sources and a new chemical process for recycling plastics that previously could not be recycled were introduced by BASF Italy, while Cisco Systems Italy (which, like Enel, signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the leading international circular economy organisation) adopted new policies aimed at producing hardware that lasts longer as well as reducing the company’s use of plastic. 

Representatives of other companies including Tesla, Fujitsu and Pirelli also took part in the debate that revealed a high level of awareness of the circular economy amongst companies in Italy. These businesses are also educating the institutions on the subject in order to try to replicate the progress being made in other nations.

Collaboration at all levels is essential because, as Innotech Hub Head for The European House - Ambrosetti Corrado Panzeri pointed out, no one can tackle this challenge alone. Events like this are most definitely a step in the right direction, however. 

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