Role of the mediator
“May you live in interesting times” goes a Chinese saying that is ironically used as a curse. Despite the disbelief of a significant number of people in global warming, the emergence of dedicated efforts by both the private and public sectors around the globe to battle this phenomenon gives me hope. Following the announcement of companies liable to pay the carbon price floor in the UK, whereby companies have to pay a minimum price to emit CO2, many have adopted sustainability programs to reduce emissions.
But what about the companies that provide sustainability services, acting as mediators that bring real solutions to the market? Indeed, a KPMG report1 identified the UK as having a strong system to tax emissions, while lagging behind in incentivizing low carbon investment.
Veolia is a company that operates in this space, describing itself as “innovators committed to focusing on carbon reduction by preventing pollution, preserving natural resources, protecting biodiversity, combating climate change and raising environmental awareness.2” In other words, it primarily acts as a sustainability service provider to different industries, governments, and even residents.
Historically, Veolia was founded in France as a water company, called Compagnie Générale des Eaux. . Following a series of acquisitions, it went public in 1998. Today, Veolia primarily provides services such as helping companies manage energy demands, low carbon solutions and waste services from recycling to incineration. It primarily operates in Europe (67%).3
In addition to providing its main services, and following the increase in demand for sustainable solutions by large companies under the IPCC and other environmental regulators’ watch, Veolia became one of the leading promoters of the “circular economy”.4
In a circular economy, instead of throwing things away when they’ve served their purpose, things are re-used, recycled or converted into energy. Under this initiative, Veolia embarked on multiple case studies that fell outside its traditional set of services, placing innovation at its heart. This resulted in Veolia investing over £50 million a year5 researching and developing some of the world’s most efficient resource technologies.
Identifying each case study as a “loop,” it’s most recent report identifies sixteen specific case studies whereby new innovations were used to enhance sustainability. For example, under loop 7, Veolia partnered with Sanofi, a large pharmaceutical firm, on platinum recovery from its drugs. Sanofi manufactures a range of drugs used in the treatment of cancer that contain high platinum. As with all pharmaceutical products, the drug has a limited shelf life and after a certain period must be destroyed. This recovered platinum was then used in jewelry and other products. This recovery process is a great example of reducing medical waste, which otherwise is likely to be incinerated.4
As another example, Veolia harvests ammonia from landfills by using leachate. Leachate, which is a liquid recovered from landfills, requires specialist treatment to remove both ammonia and herbicides from waste. Once removed, ammonia is stripped, condensed and concentrated for industrial use. Veolia uses this ammonia to reduce its nitrogen oxide emissions, a major cause of industrial GHG emissions.4
Is Veolia contradicting itself?
Despite acting as one of the leading providers of sustainable solutions, Veolia relies heavily on using high temperature incineration (HTI) for destroying many types hazardous waste and confidential material. While Veolia claims that it abides by all regulatory standards, HTI incinerators, despite being cleaner than incinerators of the past, still emit mercury, lead, dioxins and other toxic substances. Many environmental groups oppose them, including Friends of Earth (FoE)6 and the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN)7.
Looking at the numbers, Veolia accepted an extra ~300k tonnes of waste for incineration in 2012 compared to 2010 in the UK alone.6 When Veolia opened its incineration plant in Newhaven in 2012, a group of protesters held signs “What human rights?” and “This is the end of Newhaven,” and the town’s mayor boycotted the plant.9
Given its claims of being one of the most innovative companies in the sustainability world, Veolia should make a part of its central strategy to both reduce incineration waste and innovate alternative solutions. For instance, confidential material, in my opinion, does not need to be burnt at 1200°C, but can rather be wiped or recycled. Similarly, efforts to cap the amount of waste sent to incinerators, by perhaps increasing the carbon price floor for incineration or limiting the amount of incineration per company could help reduce emissions, all the while hoping that an environmentally friendly alternative will become available in the near future.
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 KPMG report (article in Telegraph): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/7896510/KPMG-says-nuclear-power-wont-happen.html
 Veolia history: http://www.veolia.co.uk/our-history
 Veolia circular economy: http://www.veolia.co.uk/sites/g/files/dvc636/f/assets/documents/2015/01/4188_Brochure_Final.pdf
 Veolia circular economy case studies: http://www.veolia.co.uk/media/media/circular-economy-case-studies
 Friends of Earth: https://www.foeeurope.org/incineration
 UKWIN: http://ukwin.org.uk/
 Veolia annual review: http://www.veolia.co.uk/sites/g/files/dvc636/f/assets/documents/2014/09/2012-ANNUAL-REVIEW.pdf