Slovenia Welcomes the New Circular Economy
The Republic of Slovenia came into existence after the break-up of Yugoslavia back in 1991.
Bordered by Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and Italy, it has a population of just over two million. Despite its diminutive size, Slovenia has emerged as one of the most economically successful newer members of the European Union, with a mixed economy built on industry and a growing tourism sector. It is also quietly establishing itself as a proving ground for the new circular economy thanks to the ambitions of nylon manufacturing company Aquafil, which has made Slovenia its base of operations. Aquafil has developed a global supply chain spanning five continents built entirely on waste - all of which arrives in Slovenia. Since 2011, the company has been transforming this waste into the source material for a raft of new nylon products.
Ajdvoščina - an Unlikely Hub for Global Waste
Every year, upward of 40,000 tons of discarded nylon arrives at this warehouse in the small Slovenian town of Adjvoščina, close to the border with Italy. It comes in a wide variety of forms - from finely filamented fishing nets compressed into tight bales to enormous coils of rope, dusty stacks of old synthetic carpet to scraps of textile left over from clothing production. The waste is brought here from around the world, as far afield as China, New Zealand, America, and Cameroon - sourced from a worldwide network of suppliers ranging from aquaculture businesses to non-profit development agencies. One major challenge for Aquafil has been establishing a reliable supply chain at scale, working with businesses and institutions that had no prior experience in supply. Besides the logistical challenges, Aquafil needed to make sure they were receiving the right material, as there is often no visible difference between plastic polymers like polyester or nylon.
Five Decades of Nylon Innovation
Giulio Bonazzi, chairman and CEO of Aquafil, stands in front of a pile of monofilament nylon fishing net, recently arrived at the Adjvoščina warehouse. Bonazzi’s father started manufacturing nylon in the sixties, having diversified from selling raincoats. As Giulio Bonazzi became increasingly aware of the environmental costs associated with discarded nylon, which takes decades to biodegrade, he decided to explore alternative methods of production. He started an extensive research and development project in 2007 to explore the possibility of reusing nylon - not through mechanical recycling but via a process that breaks it down into its chemical building blocks. There were two major challenges in doing this: Aquafil needed to establish a global ‘trash’ supply chain, and develop the science and technology to turn that trash into virgin-quality nylon yarn.
The Aquafil factory in Slovenia’s capital Ljubjana has one of the most advanced depolymerization systems in the world. Instead of sourcing the raw material for its patented ECONYL thread from the petrochemical industry, it deconstructs nylon waste, breaking it down from its polymer state into a monomer to create a product as pure as any derived from oil. Unrefined waste is first deconstructed by heavy machinery into smaller scraps, which are fed into a chemical plant where the chemical reaction allows the polymers to become monomer again. These monomers are then purified, and the result is regenerated caprolactam - the base ingredient of nylon. The caprolactam is then re-polymerized to create pellets that are spun into ECONYL yarn.
From trash to future threads
Thousands of reels of ECONYL thread wait to be packed up and sent to clients in the fashion and homeware industries. Aquafil is currently producing 100 tons of yarn every 24 hours, with its factory running day and night. The thread is transported via zip line to a packing area, where robots place them into cardboard boxes for transportation. Whilst the factory is not yet carbon neutral, it has found ways to minimise energy losses, including piping hot water to a neighbouring water park. The long-term goal of the company is to build out a closed loop system where end-of-life products (waste) provide the raw materials for new ones with zero associated emissions.
Trash to treasure alchemy
An increasing number of forward thinking companies are choosing to switch to ECONYL thread. Prada worked closely with Aquafil to create its new Re-Nylon collection - a 21st century revival of the Italian fashion house’s iconic nylon bags. Brands like Prada are in a unique position to influence both consumers and industry partners to make sustainability a priority. By creating beautiful products out of what society has long deemed waste - i.e. unwanted or unusable material - they are helping shift fundamental misconceptions both about resources and what constitutes a high value, desirable product.
Pioneering the circular economy
ECONYL currently accounts for 37 percent of Aquafil’s total fiber sales, and Prada plans to shift all of its nylon production to regenerated nylon by the end of 2021. Industry-retail partnerships like this are gradually helping transform industry and pioneer the circular economy. Consumers also play a crucial role with the purchasing choices they make, as do designers, who have the opportunity to make principals like circularity, social welfare, and ecological sustainability fundamental to their creative process.