“There is no waste, only unsold product.” Interview with Jaka Jelenc, Lead LCA expert in the ESG department of Danfoss Climate Solutions segment and a green transformation enthusiast.

Feb 27, 2024

Jaka Jelenc is a chemical engineer working on sustainable development and circular economy. His special focus is the implementation of the LCA approach and sustainable practices. He is a Lead LCA expert in the ESG department of Danfoss Climate Solutions segment. Due to his personal “green” beliefs, he established a consulting company, Greenium, through which he produces LCAs and advises organizations on the implementation of sustainable and circular practices, including cradle-to-cradle principles.


Throughout your whole professional life, you’ve been dedicated to sustainability and circularity. What led you to choose this path?

Essentially, sustainability chose me (laughs). After finishing university, I landed a job at AquafilSLO, a division of the Aquafil Group. Formerly known as Julon, AquafilSLO was the primary unit within the group focused on the depolymerization of nylon 6 waste. This involved collecting materials like fishing nets, tarps, and similar items and chemically processing them into raw materials. This unit of the company was a significant strength, recognized by the group’s CEO, Giulio Bonazzi, who prioritized sustainability long before it gained widespread attention. Thanks to the expertise and dedication of the employees, the sustainability department remained based in Ljubljana. From AquafilSLO, I transitioned to Danfoss, where I now serve as the Lead LCA expert in the ESG department of the Danfoss Climate Solutions segment. Interestingly, Danfoss does not have a centralized sustainability department; rather, we operate across various locations. For example, I handle operations spanning from the US to Slovenia and Denmark, and we primarily work in a virtual office setup.


You mentioned the support of Aquafil’s CEO. Sometimes it seems to me that while we all talk about sustainability, real transformation requires the support of owners, shareholders, top management. Can such examples serve as incentives for others, or do we need legislative pressure?

One crucial aspect often overlooked in circular transformations, such as cradle-to-cradle, is that it’s merely a concept. Not long ago, the sole paradigm was maintaining quality while reducing costs—that was the primary criterion. Now, however, many are realizing the necessity of environmental stewardship alongside these traditional goals. Achieving this requires a top-down approach. When the owner, CEO, or director of a company embraces environmental consciousness, they can rally the entire team behind them. Leading by example is a recipe for success in any organization. This is precisely what happened at Aquafil, for instance, where they recognized a decade ago that investing in sustainability could confer a competitive advantage. Indeed, it did, and still does, as they found customers and clients willing to pay more for sustainable products. In the case of Aquafil, industries such as fashion and construction were among first supportive of their sustainability efforts.


Ok, but AquafilSLO is a large company. What about small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)? Where do they fit into the sustainability landscape, and is it worth it for them to adapt to the demands of customers and clients?

Absolutely, it is worthwhile. Let me provide an example. In certain countries, particularly within the construction sector, there are platforms that connect customers with various companies. To even participate on these platforms, a company must possess an EPD, or Environmental Product Declaration. Once a company has this certification, they can collaborate with others on the platform. The significant advantage here is that these certified companies are favoured in public procurement processes, granting them access to major projects. Without an EPD, you’re essentially excluded from this circle. So, in essence, it creates a closed loop. However, obtaining an EPD opens the door for SMEs to join this circle, not just the larger corporations, thereby offering new opportunities for SMEs to engage and participate.


But what about in countries where such platforms and requirements don’t exist?

Well, in Europe these days, having an EPD in place generally offers an advantage. So, what exactly is an EPD or Environmental Product Declaration? When developing an EPD, the environmental impacts of a product are described from a full life cycle perspective, achieved by conducting a life cycle assessment or LCA. In essence, this method assesses the environmental impacts of a product or service throughout its entire life cycle, including raw material extraction, production, distribution, use, and disposal/recycling at the end of its life. The crucial question revolves around the extent to which a closed production loop is maintained, wherein a portion, if not all, of the product is returned back into the chain. However, for all companies, the first step is to assess whether it’s financially viable. Certain products may benefit from this approach, while others may not, at least not currently. There’s a distinction between producing plastics derived from fossil fuels and paper made from renewable materials – as plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Implementing a cradle-to-cradle approach necessitates understanding your risks and opportunities (through LCA) and evaluating what resources are available in a particular region. Now, if you intend to sell a product in an area where recycling isn’t feasible, would you transport it to Europe for recycling? Firstly, a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted. This is something accessible to all, from small and medium-sized enterprises to corporations like Danfoss, for example. Once you’ve crunched the numbers and made data-driven decisions, you can start exploring your options. Additionally, there’s the linkage between environmental impact and CSRD (reporting), SBTI (compliance with the European Green Deal and associated targets), and CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism), which involves paying the difference in carbon footprint for non-EU imports.


Alright, a provocative question: why would companies without the “right product” choose to pursue sustainability?

For SMEs, many factors hinge on their supply chains. ISO 14001 provides a good illustration. This standard has long emphasized assessing risks and opportunities from a cradle-to-grave perspective, extending beyond a company’s own operations to encompass cradle-to-gate or gate-to-gate evaluations. It also addresses establishing systems to evaluate suppliers at an environmental level. Companies, regardless of size, that have implemented such systems have acquired valuable information, which, if not already beneficial, will certainly prove useful in the future. Some larger and smaller firms, along with banks and other industries, are already issuing ESG questionnaires to their suppliers/partners/customers, either for certification purposes or to meet internal requirements. Some are compelled to do so, as they will soon be impacted by existing and forthcoming regulations (ESRC, CSRD, CBAM, etc.).

However, it’s true that for many materials and products, information is lacking, and while some companies respond to these questionnaires, others do not. What should be done when certain firms choose not to respond? Secondary data is available, but databases and life cycle analysis programs typically require payment for use, and there’s often insufficient data even within these resources. This highlights one of the weaknesses of sustainable development. While we’re all in it together, the circumstances may not be entirely equitable. A small company might struggle to afford life cycle analysis software that costs thousands of euros annually, not to mention the expertise needed to utilize it effectively. Getting started can be a challenge for SMEs, but sooner or later, they’ll need to address it. They may lack the resources or time, but larger companies are leading the way. When these larger firms establish standards—whether for ethical reasons or due to regulatory requirements—small and medium-sized enterprises will inevitably need to adapt. Often, it’s these smaller enterprises that serve as suppliers to the larger ones.


But sustainability and circularity also impact you on a personal level, which is why you launched your own consultancy, a company called Greenium, where you advise startups, large companies, and everyone in between. What prompted this decision, and where did you see the potential?

Honestly, I noticed a shortage of concrete LCA solutions providers in the Slovenian market. Simultaneously, I observed trends abroad and the direction major companies were taking, which raised concerns that Slovenia might lag behind. I established my company to bridge this gap, bringing my international expertise back home to Slovenia to elevate our environmental standards. There are also shining examples of best practices, such as Albomay from Jesenice. Despite being a small foundry, Albomay produces 100% recycled aluminum. With my assistance, they obtained a third-party-verified EPD for their Aluminium. And what is the advantage of what they are doing? The CO2 footprint of their Aluminium is significantly lower than average, which gives them a competitive advantage. Additionally, this certification enhances their communication capabilities, allowing them to provide the EPD to their customers.


How do you inspire companies to embrace sustainability in a world where sustainability is often discussed but not fully understood or implemented by many people and businesses?

Clearly, there’s no turning back. Large companies have already adapted. When a major corporation like Danfoss invests substantial resources into building capacity and implementing systems, it signifies an ongoing commitment. Danfoss incorporates LCA into the design of every new product, ultimately impacting everyone in the value chain. When someone approaches me unsure about following a sustainable path, I often recount the story of a gentleman who used to manufacture plastic straws and bags. He said to me that we are all talking about the green transition, but what is he supposed to do? But when I talked to him, it was already too late. Without investing in development or adapting his company for too long, he was overtaken by competition. The key lesson is not to wait until it’s too late.

However, there are also uplifting stories, like that of AquafilSLO. They collaborate with the NGO Healthy Seas, which engages in cleanups with volunteer divers and works with stakeholders in the fishing sector to prevent marine litter. This initiative collects discarded fishing nets and repurposes them into valuable resources. But how, why and where is a potential? Fishermen sometimes get their fishing nets stuck in the bottom. The fisherman will not put on his diving gear and go 20 metres down to cut the net, but will just cut at the surface and walk away. That is the reality. Well, Healthy Seas does arrange with the fishermen that when this happens, they write down the coordinates and then volunteer divers go to the site to pick up the nets. These nets are then transported to AquafilSLO where they are processed into a new product. The result? Fishermen report increased fish populations since the initiative began. This is a remarkable and mutually beneficial process for all involved—fishermen, industry, customers, and the planet. At the end, this is the point. They have also obtained a cradle to cradle certificate for their ECONYL®, regenerated nylon and have multiple published EPDs for their ECONYL® products.


What role do environmental certificates play in all of this?

They play a significant role, in fact. For a simple reason: they provide proof. If your practices align with your claims of being green, sustainable, and cradle-to-cradle, then a certificate serves as tangible evidence. Verified certificates, such as third-party-verified EPDs, CSR (verified), and cradle-to-cradle certificates, validate your commitment. In my view, if your company operates according to sustainable principles and standards, taking the next step to obtain certification is crucial. It demonstrates that sustainability isn’t just an ideal but a reality that can be achieved. Lastly, I believe that soon, more and more customers will seek out the data provided by these certificates. As is the case today with, for example, yoghurts, when the consumer looks at what it is made of, its nutritional value, the fats, the sugars. I think that this is also the idea of the EU and the EU digital product passports.


Finally, what is your guiding principle? Where does this passion come from?

My motivation stems from the ozone hole, which was a significant concern during my upbringing in the 90s. At that time, humanity collectively decided to take action, and if I have the right information, we succeeded. So, why shouldn’t we be able to tackle climate change as well? However, it’s crucial to recognize that sustainable development is not a sprint but more akin to a marathon. We’re all part of the same team, and it’s the collective outcome that truly matters. Lastly, consider this: there is no waste, only unsold product.


The interview was conducted by Urška Spitzer, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia.