A year ago this week, Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of InterfaceFLOR and one of the leading sustainable business pioneers of this generation, passed away. The self-described “radical industrialist” saw environmental stewardship as a business and moral imperative, and Anderson not only had an impact on InterfaceFLOR’s competitors, but industrial giants such as GE.

Anderson’s influence naturally trickled through his company’s supply chain. To that end, Triple Pundit interviewed Giulio Bonazzi, Chairman and CEO of Italy-based Aquafil Group. Aquafil is a supplier to many companies including InterfaceFLOR and has made its own mark on green building and design with its ECONYL process, and chemical and mechanical process that allows the recovery and recycling of polyamide 6, an important component in carpet.

NOTE: an abridged version of this interview is posted on Triple Pundit.

Can you tell us a little about your relationship with InterfaceFLOR and Ray Anderson: how you met, and started as a supplier to the company?

The relationship between Aquafil and Interface finds its roots about fifteen years ago. At that time Aquafil was still a small family run business, especially if compared to “giants” such as Dupont, to make an example. Our first ever meeting with Ray Anderson took place in 1998 during an event organized by Interface at  the Hawaii islands and that was the beginning of an important relationship, both from a personal and business point of view.

Is there a particular anecdote or story about Ray you'd like to share with us? (He was so respected, even adored, so I think readers would appreciate knowing more about the human side of him).

Well, of course I have several memories about my relationship with Ray Anderson. For example I remember the day that for the celebrations of its 25 years of activity Interface organized a big event in Hawaii with more than 800 guests coming from all over the world. In that occasion, together with the staff and employees of Interface, also the customers and the suppliers were invited. It was a special occasion because for the first time Ray Anderson was going to introduce Interface’s key project: "Mission Zero 2020".

I remember that everyone were kind of stunned and disoriented by what he was describing! I remember some of the questions that were posed in a skeptical tone such as if and how it would have been possible to produce carpets without using oil and how this new path could have been profitable for Interface and the entire carpet industry. As often happened, Ray Anderson had a forward-looking answer: he said that not only "Mission Zero 2020" was possible, but that was the only path to follow for Interface. He said that it was the only way to continue to be profitable and build the future of his company and of the entire carpet industry. He definitely has been a visionary in terms of sustainable businesses.

I believe despite the good work of companies like yours, carpet recycling is still not rigorous enough. What would companies like you want to see? Is it consumer awareness, more drop off spots, regulations and ordinances? Or do you work with builders and contractors to collect that material?

I agree that is not rigorous enough so far, the entire industry needs to do more and put more effort towards recycling and sustainability.

As Aquafil, everyday we work more and more with clients, consortiums and organizations to recover as much as we can used carpets and old fishing nets which can be returned into the virgin raw material we use,  thanks to our ECONYL® regeneration plant.

In order to collect all the waste, Aquafil has in fact created the “ECONYL® Reclaiming Program” with the aim of making agreements with carpet companies (most of Aquafil’s clients), real estate developers, carpet collectors, fishermen’s associations, marine fisheries, ect. all around the world in order to expand the network of collection of waste materials that will then “feed” the ECONYL Regeneration System.

The recover and regeneration of fishing nets is an activity we are particularly proud of, because thanks to our effort Aquafil is able to give a relevant contribution to the safeguard of our oceans limiting the dumping of used “ghost nets”, which are an extremely serious hazard to the environment.

However, generally speaking, I have to notice that there isn’t yet in the consumers’ culture enough awareness about the value of recycling, as well as an adequate mentality in terms of sustainability. This implies as direct result that people  usually tend to indiscriminately discard everything into landfills.

Probably the set of clear rules which can guide the consumers in understanding what to do with old disused carpets or fishing nets would for sure be very useful in helping everyone to be more aware about sustainability and the key role of recycling.

At the same time the entire industry should focus to develop meaningful engineering activities for the remanufacturing. One of the relevant issues now with ECONYL Regeneration System, for example, is that the process of dividing fluff  from the backing of the used carpet is not easy at all: therefore we believe that there should be a relevant effort in terms of R&D from the entire carpet industry, to make this key activity much easier, thinking and designing our future carpets as “recycling friendly”.

As Aquafil we are working towards this direction and we are part of the European project Ecometex.

The carpet industry needs to fully understand that the entire design, building and architecture industries are striving towards innovation, everyday bringing into the market products that are more respectful to the environment, possibly in a closed loop, not taking anything from the earth and not leaving anything in the earth at the end of the cycle. That is why I believe that ECONYL® fiber is the future for the carpet industry.

What are the hurdles Aquafil and the main carpet producers worldwide confront in having consumers, and builders, think about using more "sustainable" and recycled materials? Is it cost? Concerns over quality?

I think that the biggest hurdle so far is mentality: unfortunately, both consumers and architects still tend to believe that a "recycled" product means lower quality compared to a virgin one and consequently they expect a lower price, following the logic that is “cheaper and good enough”.

In our case, to produce a 100% regenerated product used also by the main carpet producers worldwide such as Interface is a guarantee of top quality, with very no difference compared to the virgin material, same performances and, last but not least, at a reasonable price.

Another issue in terms of mentality and prejudice is that people keep thinking that sustainability means high costs, low tangible results and low or no profits. But we as Aquafil are everyday demonstrating that it’s exactly the opposite, thanks to the success of ECONYL Regeneration System.

How would you describe ECONYL®’s role within the carpet industry? In which terms is this innovation changing the business and the approach of the largest carpet producers worldwide?

ECONYL® project is in many ways revolutionary for the entire fiber and carpet industry and will have a huge impact in terms of sustainability for many different reasons.

We introduced ECONYL Regeneration System in 2011 for the production of nylon 6 polymer derived both from post-consumer and pre-consumer waste. This endless process – where the used materials (carpets, net fish, ect.) can be regenerated an infinite number of times, always keeping the same high standard of quality of a virgin yarn -  is able to offer radically new solutions that break the paradigm of conventional recycling procedures used and consolidated in the field with a relevant impact on the industry development as a whole.

Since its launch, thanks to its distinctive and unique features, the ECONYL® fiber has immediately arouse great interest and demand from all major companies at a global level. and there is a growing demand on the market addressing the business and the approach of the largest carpet producer worldwide.

To get an idea of the importance of a highly innovative and effective Regeneration System as ECONYL® process, just consider that today every year about 4 million tons of polyamide 6 are produced and consumed worldwide.

Besides actually regenerating materials into your yarns, what other steps have you taken to boost your firm's sustainability? 

ECONYL Regeneration System is of course the main pillar of making Aquafil a fully sustainable company but it's part of a broader plan and cultural change that we started implementing within our organization since 2007.

In fact the company has completed over the last 5 years many other projects amongst which the most relevant are:

  • A cogeneration plant in the company HQ in Arco di Trento (Italy), which during 5 years of operation (2006-2011) has prevented the atmospheric emission of 49,664 tons of CO2, with  savings in terms of tons of petroleum equivalent of 15,520 TPE.
  •  Investments in solar power projects: EUR 1 million in 2009 for the construction of  two solar  energy fields  in Italy; in 2011, the Group implemented a plan to produce solar power at the  Arco plant, which will reduce the atmospheric emissions of CO2 by about  150 tons and in 2012 it finalized the construction of the largest rooftop  photovoltaic system in Georgia at the Group’s plant, in Cartersville.
  • Green energy, given that since 2010, all the five Italian production sites only use  energy produced from renewable sources which prevents the emission of  more than 55,000 tons of CO2.
  • Education, where Aquafil promotes and sponsor a PhD at the University of Trento, entitled “Research into the production of solution dyed BCF yarns: Improvements in efficiency and benefits for the environment.”
We have other important projects in pipeline focused on water and energy. The aim is to further reduce Aquafil’s environmental impact. More in detail for the reduction of water consumption improving the regeneration systems, the further reduction of the amount of energy used during the production process and the increase of the use of electricity generated from renewable sources by installing photovoltaic systems on the various production sites and launching plans to develop wind and geothermal technologies.

What are some of the challenges you faced as a supplier to the carpet industry, that everyday is more and more embracing sustainability and expects the same effort from the supply chain?

Aquafil has already accepted the challenge a few years ago, identifying regeneration as the only possible way to pursue. We have invested a lot of time, both human and financial resources that enabled the construction of the first ECONYL®  plant.

The establishment of a fully dedicated supply chain, however, would make more efficient and easy the process of detecting all the used materials that can be regenerated. Furthermore, it is important to underline that all the production activities must be supported by other proactive "sustainable" actions such as the use of renewable and low impact energy for power supplies, the reductions of water consumption and the establishment of closed-cycle production.

One year after the launch of the first ECONYL® production plant, how would you think Ray Anderson would feel about the work and progress your company has made during the last years?

I think he would be extremely happy of the work done by Aquafil. Our ECONYL Regeneration System gives a concrete contribution for a more sustainable world, everyday, consistently with Ray Anderson’s innovative vision.

We in fact  share a common mission and we are proud of the results we are achieving,  aiming everyday to always better environmental performances.

The recovery of raw materials and their reuse in production processes will constitute the core pillar of Aquafil’s industrial and strategic development in the following years, in addition to representing an extraordinary opportunity to consolidate the Group’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

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Read more about the debate over what is the social responsibility of business on Triple Pundit.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he is a business writer and consultant. His work is has also appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He's pictured here in Qatar, one of the Middle East countries in which he takes a keen interest because of its transformation into a post-oil economy. Other areas of interest include sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). As of October 2013, he now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.