Sustainable solutions for the circular economy based on to state-of-the-art composite materials are the hot topic of the day. For the series of interviews with sustainability leaders, today our CEO Federico Fioretto met Cristiana Talon and Enrico Benco, two great sailing professionals with extensive and prestigious experience in the field. Above all, however, today they are two entrepreneurs who have started a truly unique enterprise, GS4C. Their company is among the pioneers in the transition to a truly circular and sustainable economy. Let’s find out together what they are up to with their lean and courageous Italian excellence.
From sailing to composites
FF: From sailing to the world of advanced composite materials: how has your journey been?
E.B: GS4C, “Go Sailing, for a Change” was conceptually born in 2010 from the passion for the sea and sailing of the two founding partners, Cristiana Talon and myself. Both coming from a past in America’s Cup. Me with the Moro di Venezia and Cristiana with the Mascalzone Latino Team at the 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia. In addition to other activities in the professional sailing circuit.
Moro di Venezia first America’s Cup boat in carbon fibre
To understand our professional choice let’s make a small historical diversion. Composite materials were introduced by the New Zealand Team during the America’s Cup held in Freemantle in 1987 (the KZ-7 boat, Kiwi Magic, third in the series). The first America’s Cup boat in carbon was an Italian boat, launched in 1990 (ITA-1, Il Moro di Venezia). So when it came to thinking about a reference sector for a pilot project of sustainable solutions with recyclable composites the choice of making a boat was a natural one. A sailboat is also the ideal case study for testing new materials. It must be light, rigid, withstand incredible stress and survive in a material-hostile environment (salt water and continuous exposure to the sun).
The economy of the future
FF: Not only sustainable solutions for the future, but also the economy of the future. Your business is geared towards recyclable materials for the circular economy. How does your business model work?
C.T: The images usually associated with sailing have always been of freedom, contact with the sea, ecology, purity, etc.. In reality the construction of the hulls and all the components is not exactly as “green” and “sexy” as you may think. Starting from a white sheet, we looked for the best sustainable solutions and recyclable technologies that would allow the “Cradle-to-Cradle” (this is a concept linked to the 100% reuse of the materials used for a product, which at the end of its life cycle must return to raw material for further products N.d.R.) of the boat and that would really respect the principles of the Circular Economy.
The Open Innovation mode
We are currently working in the Open Innovation mode, i.e. bringing innovation from outside to companies and shipyards that show a real interest in a transition to sustainable materials. We provide laboratory and prototyping testing and subsequent technology transfer.
CT: Looking ahead, we are proposing sustainable business solutions closely linked to “Access over Ownership” concepts, i.e. providing a service instead of a product, in support of what we call a “Responsible Development” model. Recyclable materials are a sustainable solution only if they are recycled. This necessarily implies a complete control of the supply chain and end of life of what is produced. The long-term rental model is the only one that can guarantee this control. We are developing a blockchain concept that shifts this approach to raw materials to support our vision.
From Sailing to Wind Power
FF: Sailing and wind power seem like two very distant worlds, but you found a deep connection. How do they connect in your business?
E.B: A composite hull is made of the same materials and technologies as a wind turbine blade. Both sectors share the unresolved problem of production waste and sustainable end-of-life recycling. The technology we have identified could be the solution. However, the priority of market laws imposes choices related to the cost of materials at the expense of recyclability.
Ongoing collaborations with Amer Yachts, RINA and ENEA are confirming the validity of our technology choices. Such collaborations have allowed us to be present at the European working tables on circularity for the wind energy sector and to include direct reference to FILAVA recyclable fibre in the ICOMIA guidelines. In particular, ICOMIA’s guidelines on sustainability and use of sustainable materials have included FILAVA fibre, of which GS4C is the exclusive agent, as the best material in the field of composites for boat building.
Involved in many international projects
FF: I know you are involved in several international projects for sustainable solutions. Can you tell us something about them?
EB: We have participated in several national and international calls for tender with European partners, just to name a few with Invitalia, RINA and ENEA we developed our B.Al.i patent related to an FML (fibre metal laminate) technology. With Regione Lombardia, through the Bando Frim Linea 8, we built Amavél a 6.5 m sustainable and recyclable boat. It starts with a mineral fibre instead of glass fibre, bonded with an epoxy resin based on bio-based epoxy. Such is an infusion technology that has made it possible to validate the entire Cradle-to-Cradle process, obtaining zero production waste at all stages. It has also demonstrated the recovery of composite material at the end of its life. The project was selected among the three finalists in the Sustainability area of the JEC Innovation Awards 2018. It is an award linked to the JEC World Paris, the reference fair for composite materials.
Recyclable from recycled…
Again with Regione Lombardia we won the INNODRIVER Call for Proposals, in collaboration with Lecco Innovation Hub – Politecnico di Milano. This announcement allowed us to develop the “GLEMOULD” technology, for the creation of an innovative complete mould in Glebanite®. This is a material produced by the company Rivierasca di Bottanuco. It is a possible sustainable substitute for the classic MD wood fibre panel at various densities compacted with glue or resin, of which we have also developed the Life Cycle Assessment LCA.
On the 24th of September, our collaboration with the Futures Program of the Race Around was announced. The programme will work on four pillars of sustainability. In addition to the Regatta it will focus on Education, Equal Opportunities and Industrial Fallout with the aim of exploiting the worldwide visibility of the event to start a real change in the boating industry.
Opportunities from international research grants
With these calls we have had the opportunity to verify all the steps in the supply chain and to establish important relationships with companies that share our vision. These include One Sails, which produces fully recyclable sails. Another partner is Cormatex, which has developed a technology that allows the recovery and valorisation of all production waste. The project of the boat was followed by the contact with Amer Yachts thanks to the network work of Assolombarda. With them we are working on the complete transition of Amer Yachts production towards sustainable composites, gradually abandoning fibreglass production.
Innovative projects in the automotive sector
EB: On the automotive front, with the C2CC project (funded by the European Commission’s EIT Raw Materials Cluster). we are qualifying the Cradle-to-Cradle recyclable solution based on mineral fibre and organic resin with ENEA and the Fiat Research Centre for the sector. The car is a sector in which emissions and recyclability regulations have fostered innovation and change. Specifically, it will be a bonnet for the Fiat 500 Abarth.
The close collaboration with ENEA is fundamental for us as well as for international credibility, especially for the fundamental scientific contribution to the development of new solutions.
Opportunities for industry
FF: What are the main opportunities that your research can offer to the sustainability industry?
CT: First of all the experience of years of scouting for sustainable solutions ready to be transferred into production. Then an external point of view (Open Innovation) helps companies to identify a potential that has been neglected internally. With Rivierasca, for example, we collaborate on their Glebanite product (a product obtained 80% from recycled fibreglass). At end of life, the material can be recycled into new Glebanite for the production of moulds for the nautical sector.
Experiences similar to those of Exsulting
FF: This external point of view is similar to the contribution we make at Exsulting: we don’t claim to know the job better than our clients, but a “virgin” look at processes and projects sees things that those who are always immersed in them no longer see. What about the challenges which you encounter in making people understand the transition to circularity and sustainability?
CT: The main criticality of all sectors at any level is the short-term financial goal. Today, we are collecting on the beaches the result of very successful economic-only choices made 40 years ago. The responses of companies when we propose recyclable solutions show that the lesson has not been understood. There are exceptions, of course, and we are working with them to define a new standard of sustainability and contextualise what is simply greenwashing.
Integrated management of Sustainability meets the demands of the CFO
FF: I see that even on the critical issues our experiences are similar. Short-term financial thinking has become the only one available for most companies. This often cuts the legs off innovation and the most interesting solutions. That’s why we have developed a component in our integrated sustainability management system that provides economic returns on investments in sustainability or process circularity. This has allowed us to “speak the language” of the CFOs in a way that is much more understandable to them and makes it easier for them to find space to collaborate with companies. We hope that one day this integrated approach to strategic and operational sustainability management will also help you to find clients who are more open to experiment with your solutions.
Thank you very much to Cristiana and Enrico from GS4C for telling us a little bit about your fascinating adventure that makes an excellent contribution to the transition to sustainability and the circular economy. A necessary, inevitable transition that will never be too swift.
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