National Geographic explorer Arthur Huang and poet Amanda Gorman are in Slovenia to find out how waste from around the world is collected and turned into a new valuable resource.
Video by National Geographic

Ajdovščina is a humble town in the Vipava Valley region of Slovenia, close to the border with Italy. Locals know the Vipava valley for the excellent wines it produces - as well as prosciutto to rival that of its famous neighbour. But Ajdovščina has another distinction: it has become an unlikely hub for the collection of plastic trash from around the world.

Each year, around 40,000 tons of old fishing nets, synthetic carpet, and textile offcuts arrive at a warehouse on the outskirts of the town. They come from as far afield as Cameroon, Thailand, New Zealand, America, and China - but the warehouse isn’t the final stop on their journey.

“Normally you take raw materials from the planet, you make products and you landfill them,” says Giulio Bonazzi, chairman and CEO of Aquafil. “But instead of using oil, we use waste.” The affable Italian gestures at a huge repository of discarded products - enormous bales of green netting, thickly braided rope, giant bags filled with scrap material, and musty bundles of carpet. All of them share one thing in common - they’re made of nylon - the core material in Aquafil’s global business.

Bonazzi’s father Carlo founded Aquafil 50 years ago, and over time shifted his focus from producing nylon raincoats to manufacturing and selling the nylon fibres they were made with instead. Since opening its first factory in Italy back in 1969, the company has expanded across Europe and into America, China, and South East Asia.

However, over the same period, nylon’s reputation has shifted. Yes, it is a wonder material that can be fashioned into everything from women’s stockings to molded machine parts, but it is also a product of the petrochemical industry. Thanks to its ubiquity and resilience, nylon now permeates the entire planet, along with other popular plastic polymers like polyester.

As Bonazzi became increasingly aware of this pressing environmental issue, he sought a way to make Aquafil more sustainable. In 2007 he embarked on a massive research and development project that focused on building out a reverse supply chain. This meant taking advantage of the polymer’s durability to divert discarded nylon away from landfill, instead transforming it back into a raw material to create new products, which themselves can be upcylced at the end of their lifespan. The result was a new product called ECONYL - a regenerated nylon yarn created entirely from waste, which the company launched in 2011.

This was not a straightforward endeavour. Bonazzi confesses that had he known at the time just what it would take to switch to trash as a core resource, and at the same time develop the technology to turn it into pure nylon thread, he might not have taken this path. “We had to set up a new supply chain from scratch,” he says. “And this isn’t mechanical recycling where you can do it once or twice or three times,” he adds, “we had to develop a chemical process to return the waste to its original building blocks, which you can do an infinite number of times.” This type of process is known as a circular model - where materials can be continually recycled or upcycled to create new products.

Sourcing enough nylon waste to create a viable product at scale meant creating new partnerships with businesses and nonprofits around the world, few of which had experience in supply. Besides transport infrastructure, new procedures had to be set up - not least to ensure Aquafil was receiving the right type of waste - even today the company receives polyester fishing nets it can’t use.

Aquafil has two facilities in Slovenia - the warehouse in Ajdovščina and a nylon polymerisation factory about an hour away in the capital Ljubljana. Bonazzi consulted with physicists, chemical engineers, and mathematicians from all over the world to establish an effective method of depolymerising the nylon waste, using thermal techniques to break down polymer chains into monomers and then rebuilding these into pure ECONYL nylon. There is a lab within the factory where teams of scientists continually monitor the waste coming in, and purity levels throughout the production process.

The factory itself, spread across six floors, is on a huge scale. Waste arrives on the ground floor where it is deconstructed into smaller fragments. Further up, there are huge vats connected by a maze of piping where thermal processes further purify the nylon. Having been broken down to the molecular level, the chemical compounds are reformulated into pellets and then spun into ECONYL thread. In a vast hall that looks like a set from Kubrik’s 2001, reels of pearlescent ECONYL yarn are stored in serried rows. Zip wires then transport them to the packaging area next door where robots place them in cardboard boxes. The long-term plan is to build a closed loop system with zero carbon dioxide equivalent emissions through the production process.

In the process of sourcing used nylon materials, Aquafil also supports a number of social and environmental enterprises, including Healthy Seas, a global project to remove lost and abandoned fishing nets from the ocean. And, as the world confronts the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming, a growing number of consumers and brands are prioritising sustainability by switching to ECONYL.

The company’s new partnership with Prada is helping to take the concept of circularity mainstream. According to Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada Group Head of Marketing and Communication, the company plans to switch all of its virgin nylon to Re-Nylon by the end of 2021. “The Prada Re-Nylon project highlights our continued efforts towards promoting a responsible business and this collection will allow us to make our contribution and create products without using new resource,” he says.

“Nylon is an iconic product for Prada, so the fact they use ECONYL for their applications presents a great opportunity,” says Bonazzi. “These beautiful products that Prada is making - they come from trash. That’s really like modern day alchemy.”

Arthur Huang
Engineer Arthur Huang turns discarded plastic into pretty much anything else; from sailboats, to store interiors, to skyscrapers. Helming innovative architectural projects with his company Miniwiz, Huang is a global leader in post-consumer recycling technology.
Amanda Gorman

In 2017, Gorman made history by being named the first ever US Youth Poet Laureate of America. After publishing a poetry collection at 16, her writing has won her an invitation to read at the Obama White House. As well as studying sociology at Harvard, Amanda currently writes for the New York Times newsletter The Edit.

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