Twenty years ago, Constantin Damov co-founded recycling company Green Group. His grandfather's work and pollution in the Black Sea inspired him to make a change. Since then Damov's company has become a market maker for recycling and re-use in the region.
What inspired you to start Green Group?
My grandfather was a great inspiration to me. He was the first recycler I ever met, and we started working together when I was four years old.
During the communist era, he was making paper bags from magazines, which he then sold to the local vegetable market. Plastic bags didn't exist back then. I was fascinated by what he was doing and helped him whenever I could. So recycling was something I understood from a very young age.
In 2000, I was the director of the Romanian Association of Recycling. I was at a conference by the Black Sea, and I could see several plastic bottles getting washed up by the beach. Every day of the conference there were more there, and none were taken away. At the time, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles were a new resource in Romania. My background was in metals, and I realised that PET has similarities to metal because it can be melted down for re-use – it's just crude oil in a solid format.
That is when I knew it was a great opportunity, and two years later we became the first company to recycle PET bottles in Romania.
How has public awareness of recycling grown since then?
I believe the whole of society is on a learning curve and paying more attention to our resources. These resources represent natural capital that we shouldn't lose – we have to keep it in the closed loop. We must create as many products as possible from the same materials, while making sure they are of the quality the consumer wants. This is what people are learning.
And the circular economy is not just about recycling: there are three new Rs – refuse, repair and re-use. The circular economy was actually the economy of our grandparents: they weren't throwing things away like we do today. Recycling has to be accepted at a social level and to be part of daily activities again, like a reflex.
"The demand for secondary raw materials is growing extremely fast".
Would it be fair to say the Green Group created the market for recycling and re-use in Romania?
Absolutely. The market was not there – there was not a plant, mine or a factory to give us waste. It took us about two years to convince the market to create the flow. We created the market of collection and the market for the end product. We have been the market maker for recycled plastics, electronics and glass in this country since then.
We have also had a positive influence on nearby countries: Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Hungary rely on our recycling – and sometimes Poland and the UK.
The demand for secondary raw materials is growing extremely fast. When industry restarted all over the world after the pandemic, businesses found there were not enough raw materials to go around. Now, everybody wants our products because ordering a container from Asia can take three or four months and shipping costs are sky high.
Proximity, which is also a key principle of the circular economy, is helping us a lot. Everywhere in the world, companies are focusing on reducing their CO2 footprint and costs in freight transportation. So we want to be a European recycler with European customers, returning materials that everybody is throwing out back into the production cycle, with delivery within 24 hours.
"Human capital is more important than financial capital".
What are your geographical expansion plans for Green Group?
Our plan is to grow in Central and Eastern Europe and in countries such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, and we are interested in new markets such as Turkey and North Africa, where the recycling rate is less than 10%.
We believe we can create local recycling industries that can contribute substantially to these countries' circular economies. And we believe we can export our knowledge and our model to countries in Africa and South America where they are at the beginning of their recycling journeys.
Has European Union legislation affected your business?
Three or four years ago, it was difficult to persuade industry to take our materials. Today, companies have recycling targets imposed by the EU. From 2025 onwards, PET bottles will have to contain at least 25% recycled plastic. Those targets are really expanding the market for us.
The vision of the EU today is very ambitious, and there are question marks over whether countries can stick to the latest targets. The target for zero waste will be possible only with the political will of all member states, and with cooperation and harmonisation in legislation and decision-making. That is why to be successful we need full cooperation between politicians, industry and the public.
What is the biggest lesson you've learned as a founder?
A hard lesson for me was that human capital is more important than financial capital. Financial capital you can attract with a good business plan, and if you lose it you can write another one. But once you lose human capital, it's very difficult to replace.