Sustainable Heroes V
The Circular Bio-Economy
Catia is CEO of Novamont, an innovative developer of the bioplastics value chain dedicated to protecting soil and water resources. A chemist and researcher by trade, she has studied and promoted territorial regeneration through the conversion of industrial sites that are no longer competitive into biorefineries, as well as the creation of Mater-Bi, a product line of biodegradable and compostable plastics.
Where does your interest in sustainability come from?
Even though since I was a child I was highly interested in chemistry and the natural world, my experience in this sector began as a researcher within the Montedison Group (the largest chemical group in Italy) where I could apply my knowledge of chemistry on agricultural raw materials and waste in order to develop bioplastics. At that time, I helped found the research centre, that would later become Novamont, being responsible for the strategy and specific activities in the biomaterials sector. I strongly believed that science and technology could improve the world and people’s lives. However, since the beginning, I have been persuaded that any innovation and technology, even the best kinds, can have negative effects unless they are developed with the required wisdom, especially when renewable raw materials are concerned. I then decided, starting from bioplastics, to devote all my efforts to experimenting a systemic approach, which could create added value and reduce environmental impact, to reconvert no longer competitive and polluted industrialized sites and to recreate opportunities for territories and skilled employment.
The Italian territories were, for my team and me, open-air laboratories through which to grow a new inclusive and shared culture and in which to verify the quality standards directly on field. Today Novamont Group has 6 interconnected sites and 5 proprietary technologies, developed over years with a view to upstream integration as far as the agricultural sector. In recent years it has made a relevant effort to industrialize its cutting-edge technologies, in terms of both financing and research: €500 million invested in plants, €220 million invested in research and development, multidisciplinary projects implemented in collaboration with other leading companies and R&D centres in Italy and abroad. Mater-Biotech and Mater-Biopolymer plants, both originated from the reconversion of no longer competitive industrial sites, represent two recent tangible outputs of this effort, as well as a virtuous example of regeneration of local areas and valorisation of preexisting infrastructures and skills. With more than 600 people, Novamont Group posted sales of €238 million in 2018 and made continuous investments in research and development activities: 5% of its turnover, more than 20% of people (2018 consolidated financial statements). It has a portfolio of around 1,800 patents and patent applications.
You were selected as the 2017 Person of the Year by Bioplastics News and Novamont was the winner of the 2019 Innovation in Bioplastics award, what do these types of awards mean to you personally and for your mission?
The Award “Inventor of the Year 2007” assigned by the European Patent Office and the EU Commission EPO for the range of patents on bioplastics and the ability to transform patents in technologies, plants, products and jobs was totally unexpected and for this reason of great impact. This Award as well as the other two represent a recognition of our efforts in terms of research and investment and demonstrative cases for sustainable development and cultural growth. Through its development model, Novamont has in fact contributed to redesign entire application sectors, affecting the way raw materials are produced and modifying the use and disposal of products, extending the experimental activity of research labs to local areas. Our hope for the future is to see that the efforts of so many years can truly be the basis of a national project. The idea is that of a development with roots in the territory and the head in the world, which respects the diversity of the regions and uses it as a competitive advantage to create not just an industrial, but a cultural model involving the communities. Our objective has always been to help resolve real problems faced by society and we will continue to do so building on the results achieved.
Mater-Bi sounds like a true breakthrough product, what are some interesting applications for it?
Products made of Mater-Bi bioplastic are not conceived to simply substitute traditional plastics, but they are designed for specific applications in order to reduce environmental impacts and preserve natural resources in a circular economy perspective. Following an eco-design approach, Mater-Bi aims to provide solutions to certain environmental, economic and social problems, such as in the managing of the organic waste collection or in sectors where there is a high risk of dispersion in the environment, as in the case of applications for agriculture. In this sector there is the problem of soil degradation and growing production of green-house gas emissions. Bringing back clean organic matter to soil is necessary to maintain fertility and decarbonize the atmosphere, but if organic matter is polluted by plastics and other pollutants it can-not return to soil.
This is the reason why in EU about 66% of organic waste goes to landfill (about 64mm tons/year). Just as a simple example, compostable shopping bags can substitute the traditional ones, so that they can be used for the collection of organic waste, avoiding biowaste to be mixed with plastic and creating a positive impact on the quality and quantity of waste collected. This dual use allows, at the same time, the reduction of the number of plastic bags that are thrown away or end up in landfill. With the use of bioplastic bags, organic matter can be converted from waste to compost, a valid soil improver, closing the carbon cycle. Another interesting application of bioplastics are biodegradable mulching films, which can be processed directly in the soil avoiding the accumulation of plastic material. They do not have to be disposed, reducing the production of plastic waste and the environmental impacts related to the improper removal of traditional plastic films. They maintain the same agronomical performance as the conventional black plastic film and they can also be used on crops not normally mulched with plastic, like tomato, rice and vine. Other applications are, for example coffee capsules or multilayer films, difficult to be recycled if polluted by food scraps.
Novamont is a pioneer in the circular economy. How do you see this market evolving in the future? What would you recommend for businesses that are looking to contribute to the circular economy?
The current economic system is not resilient and is definitely not circular. The global environmental crisis has been joined over the past two decades by financial, industrial and social crises. We have reached this point because of a model of linear, dissipative development of the economy that has become globalized, minimizing the rights of the majority and producing waste. In this scenario, the circular bio-economy is a powerful tool and an unmissable opportunity to transcend the linear model of development and decarbonize the economy, addressing the problems of the degradation of the ecosystem where it is still possible to do so, all while involving the communities. Companies can play a decisive role in tackling the climate change global challenge by making the decarbonization of the economy a priority, starting from the centrality of ecosystems, such as soil, water and air, ensuring the need to redesign an integrated value chain, consumption habits and approaches to recycling. This requires a strong interconnection of the sectors, an integrated approach and the construction of networks of collaborations towards common regenerative projects.
Plastics pollution is a very visible threat, yet climate change is not always so apparent; do you see these issues as intrinsically linked? How does innovation in the plastics industry contribute to the fight against climate change?
The growth in product volumes takes place at an impressive rate: plastics production has reached over 300 million tons and is predicted to hit one billion tons per year in 2050. However, we should not make the mistake of looking for consequences without thinking about the causes. We cannot forget that plastics have improved our everyday life. Plastic is not good or bad, it is a technology and like all technologies, its benefits depend on how it’s used. Today 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all and just 2% of plastic packaging is recycled and transformed into the same or similar-quality application. We cannot start from the waste that should not be there, to create an “economy on waste,” instead, we must rethink the eco-design of the systems and then make sure that the products we are going to put on the market have the capacity to be closed in a virtuous cycle; this is true when we think of all the innovations. We need to rethink the use and disposal of products in a circular perspective, consuming as few resources as possible, using plastics wisely and when really necessary. In short, we have to stop thinking of unlimited growth and this represents first a cultural change. In this scenario, the use of biodegradable plastics designed to protect eco-systems and to promote a sustainable use of soil, could contribute to climate change mitigation. Just as an example, compostable bioplastics in specific applications could help to recycle 64 million tons of food and yard waste put on landfill with a CO2 potential saving of the order of 50 million tons.
Where does Novamont innovate to from here? What other initiatives or ventures are you most excited about?
The need for biodegradable products in various applications creates incredible opportunities. Indeed starting from the bioplastics value chain, Novamont is developing a series of synergistic products, like biolubricants and greases that, if spilled in the environment, do not reduce soil fertility, do not accumulate toxicity in the groundwater and biodegrade in a few days. Moreover, Novamont is developing biodegradable bioherbicides for the management of weed control based on pelargonic acid of vegetable origin and a line of biodegradable cosmetics, which allows for the avoidance of contamination of sewage sludge and the dispersion of microplastics into the waters. The next Novamont steps towards decarbonisation will be the continuous improvement of the energy efficiency of our plants: developing agricultural value chains, by dry-crop farming that can be realized on marginal or arid land, in order to regenerate soil and, at the same time, produce raw materials to feed the biorefineries, animal feed and other applications, ensuring the continuous increase in the renewability of our products.
Who is your sustainable hero and why?
I don’t have a particular hero. However, I highly appreciate Aurelio Peccei, entrepreneur and founder of The Club of Rome, the first think tank that fig-ured out the Limits of Growth in 1972 forecasting twelve different possible scenarios that are still valid nowadays. Peccei understood that to address the concerns related to the natural resources consumption and the destruction of natural capital, he needed to work together with the most brilliant minds of that time, putting together different skills, in order to create a widespread awareness in the world population beyond the interests of the few. He understood that changing the paradigm to combat climate change and resource degradation was only possible if each of us had taken our share of responsibility: heroes are not enough! Another interesting entrepreneur and financier was Raul Gardini. He acquired Montedison when I was a researcher in that company. “Moro di Venezia” was the Italian boat for the 1992 edition of the America’s Cup, a project strongly supported by Gardini. For me it was something more than just a boat; it was the demonstration of what can be achieved for a sailor who knows where to go. I appreciate Raul Gardini for his ability to see beyond and foreshadow new developments by taking into consideration issues that thirty years ago were ignored by most. In the world of the Italian chemical industry, he had the courage to speak well in advance of global problems, such as environmental pollution, world hunger, the depletion of energy resources and the need to safeguard planet Earth by proposing innovative solutions.
About Sustainable Heroes
Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown.
In this issue, we pay homage to global leaders accelerating the sustainable transformation – all of whom share the goal of fighting climate change and creating a sustainable world that is more resilient and lower carbon intensive.
We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations.
We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.