Veolia Australia and New Zealand’s newly appointed CEO and Managing Director Richard Kirkman outlines how the company will achieve ecological transformation.
A new report published by the United Nations Environment Program has named Australia as having the lowest spend on green recovery solutions, post-pandemic, across the globe.
The research looked at the world’s 50 largest economies, analysing how much stimulus spending was directed towards ‘clean and green’ innovations such as electric vehicles and renewable energy.
Australia ranked weakly in all categories, with its gas-fired recovery assigned a net negative impact on environment and human health.
While these findings may be cause for concern for some, for Richard Kirkman, Veolia Australia and New Zealand’s newly appointed CEO and Managing Director, they highlight significant opportunity for growth, investment, and environmentally focused invention.
“There’s a lot of room to grow,” he says.
Kirkman explains that the appetite for change is here, with Australia and the world exploring how carbon reduction and sustainable materials can restimulate economies. He points to Veolia’s purpose which is ecological transformation, highlighting the key role the private sector can play in green recovery and wider environmental protection.
“Ecological transformation means working to radically change patterns of production and consumption, to rebalance the ways humans impact the planet” Kirkman says.
“It means placing ecology at the heart of every process and every assessment, and providing meaningful solutions to clean-up the environment.”
SOLUTIONS FOR TOMORROW
Kirkman’s CEO appointment was announced in September last year, and core to his leadership is achieving Veolia’s ecological transformation ambitions.
He will pivot the organisation to be a trusted partner for complex infrastructure solutions, while influencing policy as an authoritative voice on waste, water and energy challenges facing the region.
Kirkman has a depth of experience in this area, having been a founding member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Council for Sustainable Business, a member of the UK Government’s Council for Sustainable Business, a member of the UK Plastics Pact Board, a Commissioner for the Green Innovation Policy Commission, and most recently a member of the ANZPAC Plastic Pact.
“The world is looking for some positivity post-Covid – a green recovery – and I think we can do that in Australia and New Zealand. I am really excited about the opportunity,” Kirkman says.
Since joining Veolia’s energy team as an environmental engineer in 1994, Kirkman has helped position the company at the forefront of technology and innovation, delivering the infrastructure to enable its expansion within the resource management sector.
“My background is across energy, water and waste activities – providing technical services and complex solutions for industry and local authorities in terms of improving environmental performance,” Kirkman says.
“I’ve come from the UK, where I was building infrastructure such as energy recovery facilities, recycling centres, composting plants, water treatment works and renewable energy installations. I intend to lead the build of sustainable infrastructure in Australia too.”
Kirkman’s move from the UK to Australia highlights Veolia’s expansive international footprint. As illustrated in the Group’s Impact 2023 strategic plan – released February last year – Veolia has a presence in Western, Central and Eastern Europe, North American, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Impact 2023 is Veolia’s latest operational roadmap, setting out to achieve positive impact across key indicators such as supporting regional development, combating pollution and providing access to essential services for Veolia’s five main stakeholders: shareholders, employees, clients, the planet, and society.
Kirkman highlights ecological transformation as the critical takeaway from Impact 2023.
“Put simply, what we’re talking about with ecological transformation is doing things differently. Traditionally, when you said ‘recycling’, people thought about a tin can being turned into scrap metal,” Kirkman says.
“When we talk about ecological transformation, we’re thinking more widely. We’re thinking about how much water we use, how much energy we use and where our waste is going. By looking at all these elements together, we can have a much more cost effective and impactful solution.”
According to Kirkman, Veolia aims to lead the industry for ecological transformation. He adds that Australia is well placed to support the Group’s wider international commitments.
“Ecological transformation is something we’ve always done as a company – we don’t manufacture a product that we sell to the public and we’re not a standard producer,” Kirkman says.
Rather, Veolia provides essential services that allow the industry, commerce and society to thrive sustainably.
“We support everyone to reduce their consumption where possible, and where it’s not, we work to improve processes, reduce energy use, recycle water and materials, and recover resources,” Kirkman says.
“That’s always been our business model, and we have many business cases that demonstrate our ability to do this at a financial savings for our customers – it’s a win-win.
“The transition to achieving ecological transformation can be achieved in many ways, it can be a plain old switch – shutting down processes that aren’t environmentally sound and replacing them with something innovative that could have many stages, or a long incremental process.”
While waste is just one facet of ecological transformation, Kirkman uses it to highlight his point, with each waste stream requiring different approaches and different levels of change. He notes the success of paper and cardboard recycling, which is efficient on the process side and supported by strong end-markets. Plastics and glass, however, require wider support, systems restructuring and innovation.
“All aspects of society are at a different stage in the ecological transformation process. Some need to go quicker than others, and with some, we need to think about whether they are going to change at all,” Kirkman says.
“The production of carbon dioxide, for example. There are various targets set to achieve net-zero, but it requires the commitment of everyone to get there. Policy makers need to set the standards, industry leaders and manufacturers need to build the infrastructure, and the public need to shift their behaviours – we all have a role to play.”
Kirkman adds that with waste, the transition is clear – moving away from landfill.
“Most residual waste after recycling and composting goes to landfill in Australia. But we’re transforming that now as a sector, and I think Veolia is leading the way in terms of moving towards energy recovery from waste,” he says.
“We have been contracted to operate Australia’s first energy from waste facility in Perth and we are seeking planning permission to build an Advanced Energy Recovery Facility at our Woodlawn Eco Precinct.
“Recovering the energy, recycling the metals, non-burnable material and ashes into new products. It’s a huge change that will act as a carbon sink rather than a carbon emitter.”
LESSONS FROM THE UK
While Australia lags behind Europe in terms of assets on the ground, Kirkman says there is an ambitious set of policies in place to help support the country’s ecological transformation.
“I find that decision makers in Australia are very pragmatic and good at removing roadblocks. Once the decision is made to do something, it can be delivered,” he says.
“What I see in the water, energy and particularly waste area, is there’s very clear policy coming out about the circular economy, which is just one dimension of ecological transformation.”
Kirkman adds that the National Waste Policy’s 80 per cent recovery target far exceeds Europe’s ambition of 65 per cent. He explains that composting and green waste represent a significant avenue to achieve it.
“A missing part of the strategy is anaerobic digestion. While FOGO is the buzzword, not everyone has a garden. In cities I expect a lot of people will use the FOGO bin for food waste only. And it’s much more effective to put that material through an energy centre rather than use energy to treat it,” he says.
“There’s also a huge appetite to move towards a circular economy for water – thinking about the energy we can recover from sludges that come through the water systems and how we can make sure recycled water goes back into the system at the right place. And then, ensuring the cycle is optimised from a water, waste and energy point of view.”
Achieving these and other ecological transformation objectives is doable Kirkman says. He adds that it can be commercially driven and doesn’t have to be heavily taxed or subsidised.
“It’s about total systems change – getting all the different stakeholders involved in the supply chain together to think about how we can change the way we do things,” Kirkman says.
“There is a tremendous amount of opportunity to support existing precincts with renewable energy solutions, so they can achieve carbon neutrality and secure supply, which is particularly important when it comes to a green recovery.”
Kirkman highlights Veolia’s support of the University of Sunshine Coast, with an innovative water “battery” supplying the campus with renewable energy.
“We work hard to provide energy solutions for our customers,” he says.
“Australia’s economy is founded on its natural resources and being able to mine, manufacture and manage those resources in such a way to benefit the Australian people and its economy. We need to do it safely and sustainably for future generations.”
Kirkman points to the European Plastics Pact, which Veolia, along with over 130 other value chain stakeholders across European Union member states, agreed to identify common ambitions, initiate new cross-border collaborations, and develop partnerships around innovation.
Specifically, the joint French and Dutch ministerial initiative aims to lead a pilot group of volunteer states and companies towards more ambitious targets for plastics and single-use packing.
These include a 20 per cent reduction in single-use plastic products and packaging by 2025 and achieving 30 per cent recycled plastic in all single-use products and packaging.
“It’s about getting the whole supply chain together to think about how we can design our systems and products differently,” Kirkman says.
“It doesn’t have to involve a lot of cost, most of the time we’re talking about a reduction in financial cost – using existing technology to provide better environmental solutions and only investing in new infrastructure where we need it.
“What we’re bringing to the table is a sector that’s going to invest $10 to $20 billon over the next 10 years in sustainable assets, which will bring with it an estimated 50,000 industrialised jobs.
“It’s not just about the bottom line, it’s about ecological transformation. That’s our purpose – to enable
industry and all Australians to improve the way they live and without damaging the planet at the same time.”