The inestimable value of waste and those who are ‘discarded’

Alisea is an Italy-based company that transforms PVC from advertising posters into mouse pads, car reflectors into pens, and a fairground floor into wooden puzzles for children. It is based on the idea of recovering materials to reduce environmental impact through recycling and innovation, and also on inclusion. Working for this enterprise are people with various disabilities. According to Susanna Martucci, “Waste is only waste until you give it back its value.”

By Cecilia Seppia

Born in Verona in 1958, the third daughter of an Italian army general, Susanna Martucci, CEO and Founder of Alisea, grew up inside the barracks with the desire to succeed, to leave a mark on history, firmly set in her genetic makeup. She was determined to demonstrate to herself, her parents, and the world of the time that a woman is worth as much as a man; or rather, as the Pope says, that “every woman has something unique and extraordinary in her and can make an undeniable contribution to the common good.”

“As a child,” Susanna told Vatican News and L'Osservatore Romano, "I used to fall asleep with silence and wake up with the flag raising. I received a strict upbringing and experienced first-hand the reality of being a girl in a purely male world, and at a time when inequality between men and women was very marked. I often wondered if it wouldn't have been better to be born a boy; after all, my parents were also hoping for a boy after two girls. Then I realised that Someone had something in store for me, some sort of vocation. But in education as well as in work, the pain and anger at the stigma and rampant inequality served me well. It was a spur for redemption and an incentive to assert myself.

“I think that's why I chose to become an entrepreneur at a time when women were barred from a career – or rather, I dare say, from access to the world of work; and only had to get married, start a family, and raise children without benefiting from economic independence.

In 1981, Susanna graduated with a degree in law, despite wanting to be a veterinarian, and began her career in the commercial sector of Mondadori. "There I learnt an important lesson: you don't sell a product but what it represents. I learnt the value of books, of works of art. Then, in 1994, after listening on a train to two professors talking to each other and agreeing that the human being was unwittingly sitting on a huge trash bin, destined to explode, I decided to start Alisea.”

Susanna Martuccia, CEO and founder of Alisea with one of the participants in the project
Susanna Martuccia, CEO and founder of Alisea with one of the participants in the project


Alisea is a producer of designer Made in Italy products, made exclusively with recycled or recovered materials, for the world of corporate communication. The Vicenza-based company is named for the trade winds, which constantly bring the navigator to a safe harbour.

Susanna chose an all-female team to start her business, so she had a particular need for especially favourable winds to bring change, innovation and inclusion.

And despite the obstacles, she succeeded. "In the 1990s," she continued, “the theme of sustainability, of the circular economy, was not yet known, there wasn’t even legislation on the subject, which only arrived in 1997 with the Ronchi decree. So even here, driven by the desire to do something new, we were navigating by sight, learning on our own how to transform corporate waste into something beautiful, useful, of value.”

“This is Alisea's mission,” she explained: “to give new life, redesign objects, and interrupt the chain that leads to the accumulation of waste. I wanted to produce first and foremost something unique that would leave its mark, so I started asking around for scraps from work production in order to give my company a definite identity, and at the same time to protect the environment. It is always the client who gives me the material and decides what he wants to do with it, and we process it in our factory and make it while leaving space for creativity.”

The Perpetua pencil produced by recovering graphite, a waste powder from landfills
The Perpetua pencil produced by recovering graphite, a waste powder from landfills

The originality of waste materials

Among the many examples of outsourcing one is very unique: the waste from the canning industry, specifically dried tomato skins.

"One customer was selling his preserves to restaurants, and pizzerias and wanted to give the owners a gift," says Susanna, "so within a few days, we received tons of tomato peels. We combined them with natural wax and managed to create vases that were significant in terms of shape and beauty; special candles to use as centrepieces; and even change drawers for cash registers.

“We have also processed waste materials from the pharmaceutical industry, plastic and polyethene mostly, with which we have managed to make pens for internal use with the company's trademark imprinted on them.”

In addition to the beauty of the articles, there is no lack of originality in what Alisea uses to create them: helicopter ailerons and resinated carbon fibre fabrics from the aviation industry; discarded tyres; reflectors and car lights; awnings that turn into work folders; notepad holders; diary covers; holders; home containers; and shopping bags for leisure. From the PVC of advertising posters sprout mouse-pads.

“We also recycled 350 metres of a large company's trade fair stand in Dusseldorf: the birch plywood floors became children's puzzles, and all the plastic parts were turned into computer cases or waterproof sports bags. By combining the puzzle pieces, up to 99 gryphons, chimaeras, flying fish and other mythological monsters can be created. So, here from waste materials, a fantastic story can also be born.”

But the spearhead, or rather graphite, of Alisea is “Perpetua”, a pencil—the only exclusively-Italian pencil—named after the Saint who, together with Felicity, suffered martyrdom under the emperor Septimius Severus. Their liturgical feast is celebrated on 7 March.

“'Perpetua,” says Susanna, “was born from the recovery and reuse of waste from the production of electrodes from which we extract graphite, a fine powder that landfills are full of. In October 2019, during a Wednesday General Audience, we also had the privilege of donating one to Pope Francis, who encouraged us to move forward on the path of sustainability and inclusion; then we also made a commemorative pencil to mark the 500th anniversary of the Papal Swiss Guard.”

Graphite is also used, among other things, as a dye for belts. The Romans were the first to realise that one could colour clothes or objects with natural elements. And the result, Susanna explains, “is a saving of 90% water and 47% energy. We take graphite out of the landfill: a good 45 tonnes. Graphite, when combined with rubber, is also used to make sports shoes. It can even be used to paint sustainable parquet floors. It is a highly recyclable material.”

Social implication and Laudato sí

For the Pope, what is discarded and those who are discarded by society have an inestimable value. Indeed, the Pope repudiates every attitude, mentality and culture that wants to put those who do not produce (because they are elderly or frail or sick) on the margins—or worse in the social dustbin.

“I believe that the words of Laudato si’ concern us not only for the issue of sustainability and care of the Common Home, but for the concepts of inclusion, and solidarity that are part of our mission,” Susanna says. “I started to hire divorced women, single mothers… and today Alisea makes use of a social cooperative called ‘Agape - La Fraglia’ that includes all kinds of disabilities at work: young people and people with disabilities have been involved in Perpetua's packaging, shipping, set-up, and e-commerce management for years. There are people who don't have arms and use a wand with their mouth and maybe take 5 minutes instead of 10 seconds to put a stamp or close a box, but the idea of having given work to people who usually don't have it is the real added value for me, as is seeing them smile at having completed a task. They bloom like flowers and suddenly clothed in value, they feel like men and women, people, beyond all barriers.”

She continues, “We entrepreneurs must learn to use our companies as ‘living organs,’ part of an area that must be protected from an environmental and naturalistic point of view, but also from the point of view of the people who live there. We must recover the memory of why we wanted to become entrepreneurs, and of the dreams we had, and we must also succeed in creating heirs and bridging the enormous differences that still exist between people and between peoples.

“Working with waste is pure innovation that starts from the study of materials and there is nothing more beautiful than seeing something that was dead, come back to life.”

The ideas for the future of this company are like a river in flood. “The circular economy,” Susanna Martucci concludes, “does not only apply to materials but also to ideas. There are huge possibilities in front of us and our path is also educational. The impact of our work primarily improves the quality of the environment, reducing waste and pollution.

“For the future, I hope to create virtuous chains that go on forever. I will continue to do research at a low cost for us and for others. Work is invented every day. I don't know what I will do tomorrow. That's the beauty of our business: it's constantly evolving.”

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06 June 2023, 09:52