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The Ri-Generation team.
The Ri-Generation team. Coulibaly Ladji on the top left and Giuseppe Franco on the top right. Photo: Ri-Generation, Astelav Srl

Catholic circular economy: an Italian story

In Italy, the circular economy project Ri-Generation extends the life of home appliances while lifting ten people out of unemployment.
In Italy, the circular economy project Ri-Generation extends the life of home appliances while lifting ten people out of unemployment.

“Every house appliance has a soul. If I can convey that to the person buying it, my job is done,” shares Ri-Generation production manager Giuseppe Falco.

“Every single morning before going to work I pray and I ask God to bless me. I ask to give this business and these entrepreneurs the strength to keep going. I ask God to bless them so this project can live hundreds of years” says Coulibaly Ladji. Ladji is a 54 year-old man originally from Ivory Coast who has been living in Italy since 1992.

This project helped so many people, people on the streets, people who lost their jobs. I am proud to work there” he shares enthusiastically. 

Volunteers retrofitting the factory.
Volunteers retrofitting Sermig. Photo: Sermig

In the EU, electronic and electrical waste, or e-waste, makes up for the fastest-growing  waste source. From fridges and photovoltaic panels to laptops, devices are easily thrown away when approaching the ‘expiration date’.

Only 40% of e-waste gets recycled in the Union member states. In Italy, only 32% of electronic and electrical is recycled.

Circular economy in Turin

In the outskirts of Turin, Italy, a circular economy project called Ri-Generation was born in 2017. Ri-Generation is a result of the shared values of the Catholic missionary service Sermig and the appliance parts supplier Astelav, funded in the 70s.

According to Ernesto Bertolino, the project aims to regenerate big house appliances while employing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ri-Generation also employs people who lost their jobs during the 2008 financial crisis. Bertolino is the managing director and Astelav founder’s son.

“Recycling and consuming less have always been core values for us,” explains Daniele Ballarin, one of the managers of Sermig, also known as Arsenal of Peace. Founded in 1963 by the Olivero family on what used to be a weapon factory, the missionary service offers shelter to people in need. It also provides a place for young people to meet, dialogue and share ideas.

Photo depicting the Arsenal of Peace when it used to be a weapon factory.
When the Arsenal of Peace used to be a weapon factory. Photo: Sermig

“We acted as a filter between people in need of a job and an enterprise. The idea was to make our desire for a better world for all come true through a circular economy project in Italy. What are Peace and Love if not bridging people in relationships to help the Other?,” continues Ballarin.

Broader Catholic context

This project is one of the many that flourished after 2015, the year that Pope Francis issued the encyclical letter Laudato Si’. This was the first document in the history of the Catholic Church exclusively dedicated to environmental issues and their social consequences. 

Promoting integral ecology, a variety of initiatives followed the encyclical Laudato Si’ in Italy and abroad, from decarbonising parishes and including the environment in prayers and community reflections, to circular economy projects.

Ri-Generation collects big waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) from disposal centres or through donations. The staff regenerates the devices and puts them back into the market for affordable prices. Sometimes Ri-Generation even donates equipment to families in need or organisations in the territory, such as two jails in the northern region of Piedmont.

The Ri-Generation team.
The Ri-Generation team. Coulibaly Ladji on the top left and Giuseppe Franco on the top right. Photo: Ri-Generation, Astelav Srl

Extending products’ lives

“In our artisan-like workshop, we replace the pieces that are not functioning anymore and all the parts that are subject to wear,” explains Giuseppe Falco. “We substitute everything that can extend the life of the product. This is the difference between fixing and regenerating.”

Since the beginning of the project in 2017 around “we have regenerated 3,000 appliances,” explains Bertolino. “We don’t calculate saved CO2 emissions. But we spared 150 tonnes of appliances to the environment.”

It is still a drop in the ocean” acknowledges Bertolino, “as is the economic profit of the project, negligible so far. This is not the reason why we’re doing this though, we wouldn’t even have started it if it were for the money.”

Since the beginning of the project, Ri-Generation has employed ten people. “This hasn’t changed Italy’s economy or solved the climate crisis,” comments Ballarin. “But our project has impacted ten families and the people around them. Following the arsenal metaphors, our project is a bomb with a certain blast radius.”

People throw away stuff that can be easily repaired. Sometimes the fault is as small as a sock in the filter of a washing machine,” explains Ladji, a staff member since 2017. “This circular economy project has helped so many people who couldn’t afford new products and it’s also good for the environment.”

The Ri-Generation team in the workshop. Photo: Ri-Generation, Astelav Srl

Ecological ethics

The extraction and refining of the materials for electronic appliances not only considerably impacts greenhouse gas emissions. Such activities also constitute a threat to human rights for people working in mining and dumping sites in developing countries. Regenerating WEEE positively affects them too, as every device regenerated will reduce the demand for raw materials for brand-new appliances.

By buying regenerated appliances, some of the clients grow aware of the ecological ethics behind the project. 

“Others care merely about economic benefits, but it is okay like that. It isn’t just about climate change,” explains Ballarin. “We are not just concerned about the environment, we want to care for all the crises affecting human beings,” he continues.

Companionship in the circular economy

Despite doing circular economy “feels a little bit lonely,” according to Bertolino, the work does create a sense of companionship and belonging for the people working there.

“I am a Muslim, but my faith has never been a problem in my workplace. They have always treated me with respect, as one of them. I have never experienced discrimination because of my faith or my colour,” shares Ladji. “You can be Muslim, Christian, Buddhist. I don’t mind it, as long as you have a clean heart,” he continues.

Collaborating with actors wishing to make a social impact, the Catholic Church can enact the integral ecology it promotes. Creating green jobs while lifting people out of poverty and shifting the economy from linear to circular is one of the ways to do so.