Sparks Circular economy

The gifts of circularity

 By Davide Perillo
Circular economy

The idea came about just like that, suddenly and unexpectedly. There was Silvio Pasero on the one hand, private banker by trade. On the other was his most important client, the owner of a large company selling tiles and sanitary ware all over the world..

«His wife was ill», says Pasero, «so he almost always invited me to his house to talk business». They got to know each other better and became friends.
Pasero is 60 years old now. Sometimes he brings along a friend of his, some priest or missionary passing through Italy. One of them was in Sierra Leone, another lived in Paraguay. A while later, two containers full of tiles arrived at one of these missions. «I visited my client to thank him, saying, “You shouldn’t have”. And he said, “What are you thanking me for? Look, I got something out of this. I got rid of the leftovers in my warehouse and stuff I couldn’t sell. And I did some good at the same time”». And that’s when it hit Pasero. «Shall we see how the Banco Alimentare [Food Bank] method can be applied even to construction?».

Banco Building

Not only can it be done, it really works. Banco Building, a non-profit set up by Pasero along with a group of friends from Compagnie delle Opere, does the same thing its parent organisation does with food (and the other two Italian banks that apply the same principle to medicine and IT equipment). It collects surplus from the construction industry – unsold bricks, out-of-production tiles, warehouse leftovers, returns – as well as material that is used but still in excellent condition, and distributes them to missions, non-profits, NGOs and so on. And it does it all over the world, because the need is truly global, and has been doing so for 10 years. Its first donation was in 2009.
Since then, brick by brick, tile by tile, the non-profit has reached pretty impressive figures. It has done at least 300 “things” (as it puts it on its website) with donor partners like McDonald’s, TIM, Mapei and American Airlines, to name but a few. The beneficiaries range from family homes in Bergamo to the Don Orione care home in Romania, Capuchin missions in Ethiopia and NGOs helping former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
«We handle goods worth a million euros a year», says Pasero, «with a budget of ten thousand euros and a structure that has been cut to the bone. We have one office, and three permanent people besides the three volunteers who give us a hand. I oversee everything, Massimo Barbari, my cousin and a former banker, is in charge of operations, and his wife runs the back office. Other people help us on a case-by-case basis, to organise contact and exchange between donors and beneficiaries», Pasero continues. «We haven’t got even one square metre of warehouse space and we never will. Everyone who collects has to be able to come and get the goods themselves». That’s all there is to it.
The advantages are obvious and right out of the circular economy manual. Companies get the advantage of reducing warehouse space and disposal costs. In addition, the Gadda law of 2016 has made everything more streamlined and convenient in terms of VAT exemptions and income tax deductions. Companies also get to improve their image, with knock-on benefits on communications.

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The advantages of Banco Building are clear, companies reduce the costs of storage and disposal, according to the circular economy (bancobuilding.it)

A rewarding source of income

«It’s not that fuzzy kind of charity that says, “I’m giving you a little something and I’m doing you a favour”», says Pasero: «Donors actually gain quite a lot». This is one of the reasons donors are increasing quickly. «They find us through word of mouth and by meeting us. We have a small budget that we spend almost entirely on social media. But even in the age of communication, meeting someone is always more powerful».
This means getting to know people, faces and stories. Perhaps the strangest story was the Hollywood star who ordered four hundred square metres of Carrara marble for his loft in Manhattan. Unfortunately, between buying the stone and having it delivered, he happened to find a new girlfriend. She didn’t like marble, so back it went to Italy, where it was a problem for the manufacturer until Banco Building found someone else interested in taking it. The nuns of Valserena sent it to Angola, where it’s now a church floor.
But Banco Building’s most important mission began a year ago in war-torn Syria. «A big furniture company called me and said, “We’ve got four thousand square metres of solar panels and we don’t know how to get rid of them. The certification’s going to expire but they’re still working fine. Do you want them?”» says Pasero. «On the spur of the moment, I said yes. But when I got home, my wife said, “You’re too impulsive. What are you going to do now?” She was right. I had no idea».
But then, the next day – «the very next day!» Pasero says – he got a completely unexpected phone call. “It was Sister Marta, a Trappist nun. She was calling me from Syria, where they’d just opened a convent. She told me, “There’s no war here. It’s pretty peaceful. We have water and food. But we’ve got no electricity. Have you got some solar panels?”» And what did Pasero say? «I had to sit down. “Sorry? Can you say that again?” “Yes, I know it’s odd, but we need two thousand square metres of…” “I’ve got them”. “Do you have enough for the village, too?”».
The next day, the Syrian project began. It ended just six months ago when they finally set up the panels, after an adventure that was no laughing matter – and not just because the transport was difficult, as you might imagine, with armed escorts and a mile of red tape. The panels also contain silicon, a material used to make weapons, and they needed an “international carrier” they could rely on. «I wrote to all the missions we work on, in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, everywhere. Within twenty-four hours, they’d all got back to me, saying I could rely on them. Sister Laura Girotto, who’s building a hospital in Adwa, was moved enough to say, “I’ll pay for the trip”». As a Catholic, Pasero saw God’s hand in all this. It was certainly moving reading his account of the mission, which built a bridge between charity and the circular economy.

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Donors make a lot of money and are quickly increasing. Arriving by word of mouth and through personal meetings (bancobuilding.it)

Not only bricks

It’s also moving hearing stories about more than just bricks and mortar. Over time, Banco Building expanded to cover other materials, always meeting the needs of the people it came across. «Five years ago, during the migrant crisis, some friends from Milan asked me for help. They needed bedding for the welcome centre at Centrale station. I looked in my wardrobe at home and asked my wife. “What about these? They’re brand new. We’ve never used them.” Then I asked myself, “What if it’s the same at other people’s houses?» A few days later, “a sheet for a friend” was born. We had a similar initiative for glasses, which followed the same pattern: missionaries asked for some, they had a look around and left with used lenses and frames.
«In the last few days some fabric was donated to us», Pasero continues. «A few kilometres of jeans. We got in touch with two NGOs, one of which helps babies in Guinea-Bissau, the other of which has created a network of six hundred tailors throughout Italy, from Sondrio to Canicattì, to sew clothes to donate to Africa». That unsold denim is already being turned into rucksacks and clothes, bringing joy not only to the people who receive them but the people who give them. Because there are other, unimaginable things besides the pleasure – and ease – of doing good.
Pasero often remembers Banco Building’s first donor. «It was an exciting story. He had an enormous order of tiles, the client didn’t pay for them and he went into liquidation. He told us, “If you can clear the warehouse in a week, I’ll give you everything there is”». Banco Building found a range of charities that needed the tiles. «But I’ll never forget that man looking at me with tears in his eyes as the lorries took everything away. “It’s a tragedy for me,” he said, “But at least I know that me going bankrupt has some meaning. Something good’s come out of it.” I take that as a sign». This is important, as it’s a different way of thinking. In the circular economy, even a mistake can become a resource. «If only businessmen would bear that in mind when they go bankrupt».

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Over time, the Bank has expanded to other materials, always following the needs of those it encountered (bancobuilding.it)

It would be another step on the path to what Pasero calls «a cultural project, much of which lies ahead of us. It may seem odd, but it’s not always easy to make people understand that the advantages are much greater than problems». Sometimes you find managers who’ll donate but warehouse owners who’d rather throw away everything because they’re used to doing things that way and they don’t want any complications. But it’s all par for the course. True revolutions take time.
And it will take more time yet to finish “Operation TIM”. The telecoms giant has been dismantling seven of its offices since September 2018, including its skyscraper in the Gae Aulenti area of Milan. Translated into used goods, it represents hundreds of desks, cupboards, chairs, a bar with full fittings and an industrial-sized kitchen. There’s enough for a small army of non-profit operations. «How many? We’ll see», says Pasero. «The operation’s still under way, and it’s the biggest one we’ve ever done» – he pauses and smiles – «so far».

READ MORE: The global food dump by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Davide Perillo