After studying industrial chemistry at the University of Zurich, Dr. Fabiano Piccinno joined Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. At Empa, he worked on a European research project to produce a new high-tech fiber extracted from plant-based food waste. He also completed his PhD on sustainability assessments of new materials, developing new methods for doing so. After a period at ETH and a brief return to Empa as a post doc, Dr. Fabiano Piccinno joined SBB’s sustainability team in 2018. At SBB, he was responsible for subjects such as the company’s climate strategy, its environmental footprint and the corporate goals regarding environmental sustainability. Starting this year, he has mainly served as head of the new Circular Economy Center of Competence.
Dr. Fabiano Piccinno’s core area is sustainability. He has applied his in-depth experience at SBB for three and a half years. In an interview with us, he explains how the circular economy works, how SBB aims to implement its climate strategy and what the crisis has taught him.
What are your activities at SBB?
My professional work revolves around the topic of sustainability. At the beginning, the focus of my work was on supporting and developing our company goals regarding sustainability in order to maintain an environmental advantage with regard to road traffic. We also, for example, are attempting to reduce the company’s emissions as part of our climate strategy in order to meet the 1.5-degree goal under the Paris Agreement. This year, I took over as the head of the new Circular Economy Center of Competence. We plan to use this competency center to implement a number of projects in an innovative manner, reduce our environmental footprint and achieve economic advantages.
Tell us more about SBB’s climate strategy. How do you plan to achieve the goals that have been set?
We want to be climate-neutral starting in 2030. This includes compliance with the 1.5-degree goal under the Paris Agreement and thus reducing our CO2 emissions in accordance with the requirements of the Science Based Targets initiative. We have undertaken to halve SBB’s effective emissions by 2030. In order to reach these ambitious goals, we have established a wide variety of measures. One example: All of SBB’s building heating will be provided by renewable energy sources starting in 2030. The heating that is still based on heating oil or gas will be replaced with heat pumps or pellet boilers. We also plan to replace environmentally harmful technical gases that are still being used, for example, in air conditioning systems, with climate-friendly alternatives. And, of course, our task will not be over in 2030. We plan to reduce emissions by 92% by 2040. And starting in 2030 we will also offset other emissions. The plan calls for using what is known as carbon insetting by launching projects within our own supply chain. This will not only reduce the greenhouse gases of our partners, but also the indirect emissions of SBB itself.
All of SBB’s building heating will be provided by renewable energy sources starting in 2030.
What are your goals in your new Circular Economy Center of Competence?
The Circular Economy Center of Competence initiates, promotes and spreads the concept of the circular economy throughout our company. To this end, we have assembled a cross-functional team. Its 13 members come from a wide variety of SBB divisions, including Infrastructure, Real Estate and Passenger Services. We implement the individual projects together with the business units. Because the circular economy is still relatively new for many people, we are responsible for firmly establishing this principle at the company.
The Circular Economy competency center initiates, promotes and spreads the concept of the circular economy throughout our company.
Can you use a concrete project to explain to us how the circular economy works and the advantages it provides?
A good example are the overhead lines that run along the railway lines. These lines have a lifespan of around 30 to 40 years. They are normally dismantled at the end of their service life and recycled. We have been thinking about the possibility of processing these overhead lines internally. Without having to melt them down and recycle them, we can process the overhead lines after the end of their service life – using the circular economy model – and use them for another 30 or 40 years or so, thus keeping them in circulation. A thorough environmental and cost assessment has also shown that by processing the lines internally rather than using traditional recycling, we will reduce our environmental impact and CO2 emissions by 80%. And, as is so often the case with the circular economy, this offers not only an environmental benefit, but also an economic advantage – in doing so, we decreased our costs by around 20%. I would like to emphasize that SBB, at around 77 million tons, has an enormous amount of material in circulation. This includes its entire infrastructure, its vehicles, office furniture and much more. The solution cannot be to simply dispose of everything. That’s another reason why the circular economy is the right approach for introducing sustainable change.
And, as is so often the case with the circular economy, this offers not only an environmental benefit, but also an economic advantage – in doing so, we decreased our costs by around 20%.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your center of competence and what lessons have you drawn from the crisis?
Personally, I view the situation regarding Covid-19 as an opportunity for our concerns. The environment and the economy did not become any less important during the coronavirus crisis. Quite the contrary. The crisis has shown that everything can change from one day to the next. Precisely this has shown how helpful the circular economy really is. It combines environmental sustainability with economic efficiency, thus increasing flexibility, the ability to adapt and resilience. This allows us to reduce dependencies and better respond to challenging situations, the pandemic being an example of this.
With respect to sustainability, do you think SBB and society have reached a new normal because of the coronavirus crisis?
Personally, I hope and fully believe that we have reached a new normal because of the crisis – both SBB and society in general. However, I noticed a change in thinking about environmental concerns long before the pandemic started. Sustainability as a topic is gaining more support among the public. To ensure this remains the case in the future as well, we want to be part of the solution and I am convinced that we will be thanks to what we can offer. To this end, we have consciously set ambitious goals. These goals will not be easy to achieve, but at the end of the day, there is simply no way around them. At our company, this conviction is felt at all levels. I see less resistance to sustainability in my personal circle, too.
Sustainability as a topic is gaining more support among the public.
What do you have planned in the near future for SBB and your center of competence?
Looking at the next few years, we have set our focus on implementing flagship and pilot projects. This will affect both internal and external cycles. With respect to internal cycles, we are attempting to implement projects in all areas – from procurement to inventory to end-of-use cases. For example, we have a disposal center, where we try to extract as much material as possible or process products at the end of their useful life for repurposing. If we look at the external cycles, there is a focus on making train stations more circular. For example, we are currently launching a book lending service and we are also planning a reusable cup project. The plan is to make the SBB experience more perceptible for customers.
How do you structure your daily routine in order to live as sustainably as possible?
I’ve never owned a car, for example, and I always use public transportation. I also only eat plant-based foods and try to buy food without a lot of packaging. But I’m definitely not perfect and it’s not about forbidding people from doing everything. In my view, this won’t work for the broader public, and it also won’t help us solve the problems. At best, we will be slowing them down. We need to think differently. And, finally, to come back to the circular economy: This is precisely what it does. It shows other approaches and creates a system in which there are no negative externalities. As a result, growth is possible and reasonable. What’s important is to explain the principle to people in a simple and clear manner. If we manage to do this, we create an a-ha effect among listeners and the immense advantages of the circular economy will become clear.