On the road to a circular economy

Estelle Brachlianoff

How did Veolia change the landscape of resource management in 2013?

2013 was a tipping point on our journey to become a re-manufacturer, renewable energy provider and architect of the circular economy. This makes us stand out from the crowd and positions us as the champion of sustainability. It also benefits our customers through increased efficiencies and cost savings, and helps them to meet their sustainability targets. With customer partnerships lasting up to 35 years, going the extra mile for them is really fundamental to how we operate.

No challenge is too great for us. In 2013, we converted food and beverage waste into renewable fuels and compost, transformed wastewater to a level of purity that it could be used in manufacturing, and even extracted green energy and plastics from what was left over. Veolia is also working on the front line of North Sea gas rig decommissioning as our country moves towards a more sustainable economy and we are proud of the work we’ve done alongside partners like IBM and the London School of Economics to develop intelligent water networks and smart cities of the future. We’re serious about these future markets and invest over £50 million a year worldwide in researching and developing some of the world’s most efficient resource infrastructure technologies.

What are the benefits to the UK and what challenges does Veolia face?

Since 1990, our capital investment in UK Plc has resulted in the creation of 34,000 jobs and £3.4 billion of economic benefits and we will invest a further £1 billion by 2018. As a business that reaches over half the UK’s population, we are making a real, tangible difference to society and the economy.

Winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development, the UK’s highest accolade for business success, is testament to our approach as is  our contribution to tackling some of the most critical challenges of our time – rapid urbanisation, rising energy costs and climate change.

We are proud of this contribution, particularly during a challenging economic year for our sector which continues to feel the austerity measures affecting our public sector customers. At the same time, the commercial collection and treatment business environment remains extremely competitive.

And what about the natural environment?

Our vision, ‘Resourcing the world’, means creating access to resources and preserving them for future generations. Despite being the UK’s leading resource management company, we now only operate nine out of the UK’s 500 landfill sites – demonstrating how our business model is focused on converting yesterday’s waste into tomorrow’s resource. When it comes to climate change, Veolia is one of the few net carbon creditors in the UK government’s Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme. This means we extract more carbon from the atmosphere than we emit – a bit like a forest!

You talk about a circular economy. Can you tell us more about that?

The resource industry has a major role to play in ensuring that all materials are reused not once, but two or three times. The circular economy is one where consumed materials can be put back into the production chain to become green products and green energy. This use and recover approach is what Veolia is all about. In 2013, we created enough energy from refuse to power nearly 200,000 homes via the national grid, while in Southwark our district heating system warms 2,500 homes with energy from their own waste. Veolia’s contribution to this new circular economy is self-evident – it now represents about 20% of our business.

These are big challenges. Can Veolia do this alone?

Collaboration is fundamental when we’re talking about shifting our entire economic system. We work very closely with government, customers, suppliers, non-governmental organisations, industry and academics. You will see examples of these partnerships throughout the report and in our stakeholder engagement highlights.

What role can Veolia’s 14,000-strong workforce play in this?

We rely on an inclusive workforce in order to remain at the top of our game. For example, during the year I called for an end to the ‘glass ceiling’ for female employees and I am proud to say that at Veolia 30% of our Board is made up of women.

This isn’t about ticking boxes for us. It’s about securing a workforce that thinks creatively – and we believe this comes from a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. The contribution of those with university degrees is equally as important as those who have experienced homelessness or prison.

I am delighted to report that Veolia was named Vocational Qualifications Employer of the Year for England, showing that we value the development of our employees. Above all of this, the safety of our people remains our top priority and I am pleased to see a 12% reduction in workplace accidents. Going forward, we pledge to create 28,000 more jobs for local people from our investment programme by 2018.

How is Veolia bringing value to its communities?

We have attempted to put a price on the social value that a business like Veolia can bring to people in the surrounding area. Working alongside our client, the London Borough of Southwark, we estimate that every £1 spent by Veolia in our waste management services contract will deliver £2.09 worth of social value. This value comes from the services we provide with an additional £28.05 resulting from every £1 we spend on community projects such as supporting social enterprises, working with community groups and giving recycling education lessons to pupils from local schools. Through The Veolia Environmental Trust, £4.7 million was awarded to community and environmental initiatives up and down the country.
We’ve been getting more people than ever in our neighbourhoods ‘back to business’ through our suite of work and training initiatives that focus on those at the margins of society. We filled 81 work placements for ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed, while our apprenticeship programme went from strength to strength, supporting 354 apprentices, exceeding our target of 300.

So what’s next?

Our strategy to resource the world is ambitious and long term. We will explore even more untapped markets where we can apply our know-how to mega resource challenges; we will build on our own culture of innovation and facilitate consumer behaviour change towards a more circular mindset. There’s much to do but we are driven by our clear vision for a smarter, more sustainable world.