Who invented the three R’s?

Growing up, I came to realise that my grandmother never actually bought notebooks. She would jot down her shopping lists on the backs of envelopes or on the drawing pads that her untidy and careless grandchildren would leave lying around in the large playroom. Similarly, she would reuse elastic bands, string and anything else that could be “recycled”. She called it being thrifty. It is, of course, a great idea: using the things you already have so as to meet your needs and save money at the same time. It’s a concept that most children can easily grasp. And I must have learned the lesson pretty fast, because at home, whenever someone was on the point of discarding a big empty box, I would shout “No! Don’t throw it away. I want to use it for a doll’s house or to make a robot costume.” My mother, who never said no when I made such a request, used to call it being creative.

Recalling all this, it seems to me that such attitudes are the antithesis to the times in which we now live, in which everything is expendable and can be replaced with, for example, a new toy, prettier and more attractive, perhaps simply because it is new. But what happens to the old one? Well, very often it will end up in landfill – an ever-increasing accumulation of waste that represents a net loss of raw materials. Indeed, according to the latest Ispra report on urban waste, 26% of the waste generated in Italy goes to landfill: that’s 7.7 million tons out of a total of 29.5.

What can we do to solve this problem? Well, we can start changing the way we live, trying to avoid waste and saving the resources that today’s crazy world is so rapidly consuming. My grandmother would have called it “being thrifty, bright and creative”, in other words learning to follow what, in the jargon of today’s circular economy, is called the three R’s rule: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The good news is that there are companies that have already understood this idea and learned to apply it profitably. The automotive industry, for example, has been using recycled materials for years and is now working on ways of making it easier to recycle those parts of cars that are made from a combination of different materials. All this in order to facilitate the recyclers who, while not regarded as the most innovative sector, are nevertheless extremely efficient: according to the latest available data (from Unire, the Confindustria association of Italian recycling companies), the rate of reuse and recycling of end-of-life vehicles in Italy stood at 82.5 percent in 2014, a result pretty close to the 85% target set by the European Union.

So what are other sectors doing in order to be more thrifty? The Industry 4.0 philosophy, for example, is encouraging many companies – including those operating in the plastics industry – to rationalise their production processes, which clearly translates into savings in terms of resources and energy. And were we to analyse more closely the plastic materials landscape, we would also find that raw materials producers – compounders primarily – are very aware of the need to recycle post-industrial and post-consumer waste, while more and more companies are opting to manufacture products that are made from “second life” materials or in any case designed with a view to getting more from less. Advanced software solutions and high-performance materials are extremely useful for obtaining articles that are lighter, better performing, more durable and more economical. Finally, closing this virtuous circle, we find startups and companies already geared towards innovative processes, including depolymerisation and “plastic to fuel” solutions. We can therefore say, without being in the least conceited, that the plastics industry is truly advanced. Unfortunately, many still do not appreciate this, and this perhaps explains why plastic is subjected to a constant barrage of criticism in the media and from environmental associations.

There is no doubt that more could be done. But how? Well, we can draw inspiration from the creativity of the natural world where – just think about this – there is no such thing as waste, since everything has a role in another process. Some have already thought along these lines, and turned nanocellulose (a constituent of cellulose that makes trees strong) into a reinforcing fibre to be used in parts for airplanes, cars and buildings, a solution that is not only bio-based but also highly efficient. Spider silk is another source of inspiration. Although this is very difficult to produce naturally, a possible solution is to insert spider DNA into the genome of bacteria and allow them to produce it. In industrial settings, the silk can then be extracted and used to produce fabrics or ropes: it is incredibly strong, almost as strong as the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests, but being bio-based it can be composted and thus go back to being a raw material. This brings us back, once again, to the intelligent thriftiness of nature. So why don’t we “steal” this idea, and consider creating plastic goods containing a sort of genome capable of converting them, at the end of their life, into the polymer from which they were created?

Although this can sound a far-fetched idea, the concept of developing an infinite thrifty cycle of this kind from something we can find in our own backyard is certainly stimulating.