January 06, 2020 7 min read
Giulio Bonazzi is the President and CEO of Aquafil, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of nylon. He is also helping to lead the charge for the future of sustainability in consumer goods, especially through the development of Aquafil’s marquee product ECONYL®. At Pacsafe, we first came across ECONYL® regenerated nylon when looking for the best option to make high-quality, durable anti-theft bags that were better for the environment. Frankly, we were pretty amazed at the properties of this fiber, which was identical in quality to brand new nylon. Even better, thanks to the Regeneration system, waste such as fishing nets are taken out of the environment and turns it into something useful.
Since developing our Pacsafe ECONYL® Collection, we’ve come to know Giulio Bonazzi is an incredible wealth of knowledge in the sustainability space. He does keynote speeches at conferences discussing the circular economy and is very generous in sharing his knowledge with others.
We recently sat down with Mr Bonazzi to ask about how ECONYL® came about, what sort of challenges we face globally in changing our habits for the better, and what the future of sustainability might look like.
Here is the interview…
I have to say thanks to my wife for that. We moved into a property over 30 years ago which had thousands of olive trees. She really started to become interested in organic farming and helped me understand why we should do things this way. It made me more aware of how that could be expanded into what I was doing with my company at Aquafil. We were really wanting to do things in a better way, being more efficient, making less waste, and so sustainability became a part of that. The first step we made at the beginning of the 90s was starting to recycle our own internal waste. Then, at the beginning of the year 2000 we saw that the market was more demanding for products that were better for the environment. We looked at ways to help recycle pre-consumer waste in our products, then shortly after realized pre-consumer waste wasn’t enough. We had to turn our industry into a circular business, or we’d all risk disappearing.
Happily, there were customers, especially in the carpet industry, really willing to embrace the concept. In 2011, the first ECONYL® facility using both pre and post-consumer waste started up. It has been, and still is, an incredible journey because we continuously face new challenges and need to push harder and harder to resolve problems that you couldn’t even imagine before facing them. It’s fun. My people and I really enjoy it and we are always learning off of each other on how to improve and make things even better.
Nylon 6 is the only nylon that enjoys a kind of magic property that lets it be fully depolymerized back to its original building blocks. All impurities are erased and you start again from the beginning. This is possible for very few plastics. Normally, we think about taking plastic and remelting, like PET bottles. When you melt plastics you’re subject to limitations like coloring. You can’t make clear plastics they have to be darker colors. There are other issues too like toxicity through aging and more. Sometimes it’s better not to recycle these products for health reasons. ECONYL® yarn doesn’t have any of these limitations. It can be regenerated again and again without losing its high quality. However, it’s not so easy to make.
A big limitation of making ECONYL® is waste procurement. I think that’s a common misconception, that there’s too much waste and we should have plenty to work with. Unfortunately, not all of it is useable. Try and separate what we can use from the garbage you make at home and the logistics will kill you. Everything is blended together. It’s all dirty. It’s almost impossible to do that. That’s an ongoing challenge. We’re working crazily to find workable waste streams. There are plenty of fishing nets fortunately and unfortunately. We get them from as far as New Zealand and Australia. Old carpets have a lot of potential too. We just started up the first carpet recycling facility in Arizona. So, for the time being, we have established a consistent reverse supply chain. For future implementation, we need to find suitable streams while working very hard in the meantime for eco-design of future products.
Then, the recycling journey itself is just as challenging, mostly because products are made without its ‘death’ or end-use in mind. Nylon 6 is really hard to find in pure form. Even fishing nets are 70% nylon, carpets are 30-40%, fabrics less so. It’s like trying to extract sugar and eggs from a cake you’ve just baked. It’s a very challenging process. However, it’s a challenge we can manage. It’s also a challenge to chemically recycle in a way that’s okay for the environment. You don’t want to go to all this trouble of recycling for a better planet, only to pollute it with toxic chemicals. We have to work very hard to ensure the right process is used so we’re doing a positive thing.
What to do with excess materials after separating out the nylon 6 is a challenge too. We want to use it from a sustainability point of view, but also a dollar point of view. They’re often sold as a secondary raw material, or we recycle them. We try not to throw anything away. We only throw away a small amount now. That’s only possible with a large stream of waste.
We also use renewable energy in the process to help avoid those problems as well. It’s a constant battle with the current system that’s not made with the end of life of products in mind.
If we want to change for the better, we need 3 basic things.
The first is good legislation. For example in Norway, there is excellent legislation to help control how they make, tax and collect plastic bottles. They reward consumers for taking them back, or tax companies who aren’t following the rules. If Norway can recycle 70% of plastic bottles, so can the rest of the world. California has some good legislation too with plastic bottles, carpets, and mattresses. They calculated that carpets represent 3-4% of landfill, which is huge. They’ve addressed those biggest streams. Other things are happening in Europe too. They’re basically banning single-use plastic in a really short period of time.
The next thing is education. Everyone can make a difference. We all have to change and be careful with what we’re buying, choosing the right products, and how we use them. We should all take bags with us shopping to eliminate the need for new plastic ones. I also tell people to leave all the packaging of their products in the shop. When the retailers become flooded with packaging they’ll ask their suppliers to do things better. It all puts pressure back up the chain to change and do better from the start.
Third, and very importantly, is eco-design for the future. We need to make different products that are more easily recyclable. Made with the right ingredients, manufactured with the right systems and distributed with the right channels. It would be easier to collect, easier to break into its usable parts and therefore create a circular economy for this material.
Of course all of them! Whenever you see a nice new product, you’re so happy to be involved with this idea and that they’re all made with better ingredients like ECONYL yarn. That’s exciting. I have to mention some specific ones though.
When talking about eco-design for the future, Napapijri has just created their iconic Infinity Jacket. The jacket is entirely made from Nylon 6. The trims, the material, the pulls, everything. They’re also working on a collection system for recycling once the customer has finished with it. It’s the first time I’ve seen a product designed so well with end of life in mind.
Also, in the fashion industry, OuterKnown was the first one to adopt ECONYL® regenerated nylon for their flagship product. Having people like Kelly Slater and his team who grew up in the ocean, and have a passion to look after, it is super exciting. Working with luxury products like Prada is also amazing because people are watching them. They lead by example and say we can do it, you can do it. This is the right thing to do.
When you deal with new products like Pacsafe and bags, that’s really exciting also. Stella McCartney was the first with bags in the fashion industry. Pacsafe is very different again and equally interesting. I was intrigued by the product immediately and now use them whenever I’m traveling to help with security.
I’m using two of the bags depending on the length of my journeys. I have the Vibe 25L Backpack when I’m only going for 48 hours. It’s easier to carry light. In the new collection, there’s the bigger Venturesafe EXP 45 which is great for 3-4 days and still works as carry-on luggage. I love the idea of having pockets where you can put your passport and boarding pass so you don’t have to take out all of your gear. Of course, if you lock your zippers you’re safer on a bus or the Metro. For me, it’s also really important to have spots for a reusable water container as well. I love that these bags have that. I’m now looking forward to Pacsafe making a travel bag with wheels out of ECONYL® yarn to help me on even longer trips. Please.
To check out the entire Pacsafe ECONYL® Collection, head here.
Or, to find out more about the regeneration process for making ECONYL® yarn, head to their website.
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