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Let's cultivate circular energy

Eni's activities for the decarbonisation of fuel production and sustainable development.

by Davide Perillo
25 November 2020
7 min read
by Davide Perillo
25 November 2020
7 min read

The canister was sitting on the desk. Green, not huge, but large enough to hold quite a bit of the oil that the family would usually throw after frying food or making a salad with canned tuna. About 1800 of them were given out, together with a memo explaining the how and why of the initiative. That was essentially how some Eni employees were introduced to the ‘Oilà project’ to collect waste oil to be used in biorefineries to extract eco-fuel. Starting with the Roman offices at the end of 2018 – and gradually expanding to Taranto, Porto Marghera, Sannazzaro de' Burgondi – Oilà is the perfect example of what can happen when we look more carefully at the plates we carry to our dinner tables, with a view to stemming waste. It's a win-win-win situation – for us, for the environment and for energy producers. And that's why Eni signed an agreement last January with Coldiretti, the largest farming organisation in Italy with 1.5 million members. The aim of the pact was to organise joint circular-economy and sustainable-development initiatives, which will strengthen energy’s role in agriculture”. Eni distributes its range of fuels and oils for agricultural machinery to Coldiretti companies, as well as biodegradable lubricants with low environmental impact that are formulated with raw materials from renewable sources.

The Italian farming sector carries with it the expertise that comes from being the greenest in Europe, with a hyper-controlled supply chain (only 0.4% of checks on improper use of chemicals come back positive, compared to an average of 1.4% in the EU) and 272 PDO and PGI products. The sector provides Eni with waste and residues from agricultural processing, which in turn enter the biofuel production cycle. The agreement gives Eni a significant push towards its ambitious but exciting goal of an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 by "decarbonizing" energy products. But the deal goes deeper than a simple commercial partnership. “Food is energy, it is the fuel of our life”, says Teresa Dina Valentini, Head of Processes, Reporting and Support Circular Economy and Green Refinery at Eni. “But”, she adds “to get this fuel, you need energy from elsewhere to make the whole process work”. Essentially, food and energy are closely related and, not surprisingly, this gives rise to initiatives that go beyond ‘industrial synergies’.

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Take, use and reuse: the principles of Circular Economy.

Food ethics

Let’s look at some examples. The Circular Tour was launched immediately after the announcement of the deal. The basic idea was a tour of Italy’s gastronomic excellence. The first stop was in Gela, Sicily, in February. The town piazza was given over to meetings, seminars, educational workshops for children and recipe demonstrations. Campagna Amica Coldiretti set up some stalls for "zero km and eco-sustainable" shopping and Eni installed its ‘EniCiclo’ – a circular structure with seven screens (designed by architect Marco Capasso) that gave visitors a virtual tour of local culinary traditions, including videos, photos and original music. Then the pandemic got in the way, delaying the other planned stops in Taranto, Naples, Genoa and more.

But where there’s a will there’s a way, so the campaign continued online, for example, with Corriere.it hosting "Cibo a regola d'arte" (State of the Art Food) on 6-8 November. Among the dozens of meetings, talk shows and seminars discussing ‘ethical gastronomy and sustainability’, there was also an interesting chat between Valentini and Veronica Barbati, representative of Coldiretti Giovani Impresa. "When we are able to work as a community, we put good energy into circulation", said Valentini. And this kind of partnership makes it possible to do it "precisely because of the magical interaction that is triggered through certain industrial symbioses. Sectors that work together to find solutions – in this case providing products with less environmental impact – are a good thing for everyone”. For one such virtuous example, Valentini cites the work on waste oils. "It’s a very big polluter. They contaminate water, they can do considerable damage to purifiers and, if they accumulate on the surface of the water, they limit oxygenation”.

The number-crunchers say that 2.5 litres of oil are enough to make 2.5 million litres of water ‘undrinkable’. That’s equivalent to the contents of an Olympic swimming pool. If you think that more than 75,000 tons of waste edible oil are collected a year in Italy, almost exclusively produced by catering and industry, you can appreciate the risks involved. “But that oil can be recovered. Instead of doing damage, it can be turned into energy”, says Valentini. The Oilà project, for example, uses Ecofining technology to turn spent oils sent to Venice and Gela into the organic component of Eni Diesel+. The process is similar to what happens with bio-oil from organic waste and wastewater sludge. Again, this comes from Eni technologies and is mainly used to produce low-sulphur fuel for transport by sea. All these activities lead to less pollution and give a second life to raw materials, putting them back into circulation, as is the case the Coldiretti deal.

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Don’t call it “waste”.

A virtual circle

But while the economic and environmental value of an alliance like this is obvious, the cultural value is perhaps even greater. “It's about a paradigm shift”, says Valentini. “There's so much energy that goes into bringing a meal to the table. You need it every step of the way". To light the stove, but also – going backwards – for logistics, distribution, and even the technologies needed to produce the raw materials. “In a way, the quality of the energy guarantees the quality of what we eat. That’s why we need to do the right things, so we don’t waste energy and also reduce emissions”. The first step is to jolt citizens into awareness. “That’s the word I prefer, compared to ‘consumers’”, observes Valentini. “We don’t just need to change gear, but to change our mentality.

And you don't change the way you act unless you change the way you think. There is energy in everything we do. It is essential for change. So we have to take it on board that waste is bad for everyone. We have to learn to do it in the most efficient way". That’s an appeal Coldiretti is fully behind, as Barbati also emphasised in the online meeting just how important our responsibility is. "If I buy zero-km food from Campagna Amica, I've made an important part of the journey, sure. But if I don't look at expiry dates and end up throwing out some groceries, then we're back to square one. Sustainability has many aspects.

We focus a lot on the management of natural resources, but this is a matter for everyone. Think about water. It is such a valuable commodity. But how much do we waste through careless behaviour?”. So, at the end of the day, ‘circular’ projects are not only about the recovery of the raw material. But also the bond that is created – and gradually tightened – between the parties involved. A virtuous circle made of connections, relationships and joint actions. “The great advantage of the circular economy is that it puts people in symbiosis”, says Valentini. "In this game, there is no single player who can solve the problem, or one who acts while the others watch on. We all have a role to play”.