Veolia’s Ben Sullivan, NSW Group General Manager, tells Waste Management Review about the company’s innovative virtual reality campaign and how raising community awareness has formed an integral part of its approach to infrastructure.
In the early 19th century – there were one billion people on our planet. Today, there are more than seven billion.
Securing ample resources for our vastly populated planet, now and into the future, is inherently linked to “sustainable development” – an idea that has become increasingly mainstream in the last two decades.
The origin of the term is most frequently cited as having emerged at the 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. The UN-commissioned Brundtland Report famously stated: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This need for longevity and preserving resources has manifested in history through the development of sustainable outcomes which meet evolving community needs – a core focus of global integrated environmental services provider Veolia for more than 160 years.
The company’s journey began in 1853, when an organisation, known as Compagnie Générale des Eaux, was established in the French town of Lyon. Its first Lyon contract sparked a chain reaction that marked the beginning of a more than 50-year journey, with new approaches to city planning – buttressed by clean drinking water and treated wastewater, and large-scale energy production by the 1900s.
Veolia’s global expansion has, over time, allowed it to become a world-leading influencer in the environmental services sector – now active in more than 40 countries. In 2014, it integrated its water, waste and energy businesses into one organisation.
Promoting widespread reuse of resources through materials and waste recovery, water and wastewater treatment and optimising energy use has established Veolia as an expert in the delivery of a circular economy. Understanding we live on a planet of finite resources, the company has made it its mission to help consumers and businesses and governments worldwide switch from a resource consumption model to a use and recovery approach.
Within Australia and New Zealand, Veolia is working with businesses, consumers and all levels of government to more efficiently use, reuse and recover water, waste and energy. It is also rationalising operational costs in the process while reducing its environmental impact. Veolia has taken this journey a step further with the launch of its Rethinking Sustainability campaign – exemplified through a new and innovative virtual reality video.
A NEW REALM
Rethinking Sustainability was developed in collaboration with brand agencies Republic of Everyone and The Bravery, and creative film production company Paper Dragon. Its aim is to encourage the community to rethink their everyday habits by showing them how their household waste is being transformed into a new resource.
The concepts of a circular economy and sustainability can be complex and often difficult to understand in practical terms. As such, Veolia wanted to create a story which was simple, engaging and communicated the real ways in which waste can be repurposed, recovered and given a new life.
Using virtual reality technology, viewers are taken on a behind the scenes journey of what happens to their waste once it leaves their hands and the value that can be recovered.
It begins with a 360-degree view of a bin-bound tomato, tracking its journey to a mechanical biological treatment facility (MBT), where it is sorted and separated from residual waste and processed into compost. The visualisation of the tomato’s re-emergence as a seedling set to start the process of life again demonstrates the circular economy. Veolia aims to ensure the audience realises the final message before it is shown on screen: “It’s with yesterday’s old that we build a new tomorrow – together.”
Ben Sullivan, Veolia NSW Group General Manager, explains that the presentation of Veolia services can often be technical and/or targeted at commercial or business clients. He says that through Rethinking Sustainability, the company wanted to simplify and breathe life into how waste is transformed into a recoverable resource.
“While our initial story focuses on waste, we hope to also showcase the same concepts of recovery and optimisation for all the services we deliver, including water, waste and energy,” Ben says.
“After all, when we think about how individuals and/or businesses can best reduce their impact, this forms the basis of any sustainability journey.”
Ben says Rethinking Sustainability is evolving Veolia’s message to include examples of its energy recovery through better monitoring and technology upgrades. He says Rethinking Sustainability is also characterised by optimising water and wastewater recovery through better operational efficiency of water utilities and assets.
“Fundamentally, we want to reach a wider audience with a focus on avoidance, reuse and recovery,” Ben says.
“It’s really leveraging the social change we’ve seen in recent time around environmental awareness with programs like War on Waste. We are seeing our customers experiencing more difficult operating conditions, so driving efficiency and increasing productivity in line with improved environmental performance is the response to a perfect storm.”
Ben says the new virtual reality storytelling platform has significant cut-through from an educational and empathetic viewpoint through its interactivity and social media shareability.
The tomato travels in a waste receptacle from the point of disposal – a home in Sydney – through Veolia’s Banksmeadow transfer station via rail, before arriving at Veolia’s MBT facility at Woodlawn.
“You can actually see what Sydney’s putrescible waste looks like when it’s amalgamated, then going through the separation, and eventually, fermentation process, where maturation happens.
“All the filming was done through the Veolia supply chain – on our sites and facilities – from transport through to end disposal and recovery. We have made the concept of a circular economy real and accessible for the everyday Australian,” he says.
Statutory authority Sustainability Victoria’s research with CSIRO, Engaging communities on waste, showed knowledge about household collections was good, but knowledge about landfills and the use of recycled materials was low. Ben says there is a lack of understanding around the complexity of the different types of waste and its various treatment processes.
“Many people see waste as just something that is put in a bin and taken from the kerb once a week,” he says.
Veolia aims to show how the organisation is investing in technology, people and infrastructure to ensure that the value of waste, at all stages of its life cycle, can be recovered and returned. Ultimately, Rethinking Sustainability aims to assist viewers to reconsider their everyday habits.
“If we reflect back 20 or 30 years ago, the campaign around waste and knowledge is not dissimilar to campaigns around skin cancer such as ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ or even ‘Life. Be in It’ for healthy living,” he says.
“We need to do more with less, and we need to make sure we are ready for the future.”
While aiming to be accessible to a wide audience, Veolia believes there is great value in targeting younger generations, such as millennials. Rethinking Sustainability has been trialled with virtual reality headsets with more than 200 students at primary schools in Newcastle. Ben says reaching schools will have a direct impact on generational change and open up conversations around dinner tables for families about what they can do differently.
He says community confidence is paramount in the face of China’s enforcement of non-acceptance on 24 categories of solid waste with a 0.5 per cent contaminant or more. Veolia sees this as a fundamental shift in the market. At the same time, there is an opportunity for the waste industry to adapt and create local markets to retain the value of the waste we generate in Australia. This has flow-on effects in creating Australian jobs and stimulating investment in recycling and resource recovery technology.
“If the community loses confidence that we aren’t recycling valuable materials, then it will take a long time to rebuild that trust, particularly if they are already committed to separating their waste materials across different bins,” Ben says.
He says while there has been initial support from some states in supporting councils financially, it is important not to lose sight of the need to stimulate local recycling markets, which takes years to develop.
“We just can’t develop these facilities overnight. We need planning approval and investment surety and we need mandated markets for the product. While the initial support is encouraging, we need federal support and cohesion as well.”
MECHANICAL BIOLOGICAL TREATMENT
This commitment to investment in deriving value from what would otherwise remain waste is evidenced by Veolia’s $100 million investment at the Woodlawn eco-precinct. It is located on a rehabilitated mine site in the NSW town of Tarago, 240 kilometres from Sydney. The eco-precinct includes a bioreactor landfill, bioenergy facility and an MBT.
Supporting the major infrastructure on site are aquaculture and agricultural outputs, a wind farm and a community education centre, garnering up to 2000 guests a year, including schools, universities and community groups.
The MBT is the most recently commissioned component of Veolia’s Woodlawn eco-precinct and receives household waste from a number of Sydney councils.
It helps them meet their targets of diverting 70 per cent of waste away from landfill by 2021. Councils deliver the household collected waste to the two waste transfer stations (located in Clyde and Banksmeadow), where it is compacted into shipping containers at a rate of 31.5 tonnes per container. From there, it is taken to Veolia’s Woodlawn eco-precinct by rail.
Waste is combined with air and water in large rotating bio-drums which breaks down the waste before it undergoes anaerobic digestion to produce a compost product. Residual waste is then transported to the onsite bioreactor, which accelerates waste decomposition, maximises landfill gas recovery and extracts methane gas to convert the waste into energy and heat.
Ben says this precinct is a tangible example of Veolia’s investment in technology which extracts as much value out of the waste cycle. He says it reduces the nation’s long-term environmental impact while also helping the company’s customers achieve their sustainability goals.
SERVICING MELBOURNE AT BULLA
In Melbourne’s north, Veolia’s organic waste facility in Bulla uses local technologies to turn thousands of tonnes of organics from 11 councils in the north and west into high-grade compost. Bulla processes 85,000 tonnes of bush trimmings, lawn clippings, garden waste and food scraps which would otherwise have gone to landfill. This is converted into about 60,000 tonnes of compost which is sold to commercial operators.
Veolia collects and transports the green waste to its Bulla facility where a large external pad screens the material for contaminants before shredding it down.
It is stockpiled until an enclosed in-vessel compost tunnel becomes available. Ben says the innovative design allows for a quicker biodegrading process.
“Air is recycled through the stockpile as part of the biodegrading process and the biological breakdown kills pathogens and weeds in the green waste,” Ben says.
“It takes about a week, which is a fairly fast process, versus the traditional process where you might shred and leave external through windrows.” He says it ends up on a final maturation pad before the compost product is developed.
The investment in technology at facilities like Bulla allows Veolia to contribute to reducing the industry’s waste-related environmental footprint. Veolia is working with local communities and customers to shift the focus nationally to reuse and recovery. This same mentality and examples of technical innovation go across all areas of its business, from waste to water and energy.
“Rethinking Sustainability celebrates the ways in which Veolia, in partnership with its customers and the community, is challenging the creation and consumption of water, waste and energy. It’s showcasing how investment in the technologies and people-power will create a new sustainable future for Australia and New Zealand.”