Is recycling worth it? Veolia finds green in going green

Wed, 2015-10-14 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

While the New York Times and some American waste haulers wonder if recycling is worth it, across the Atlantic there’s no question that it is. In fact, one company that started as a trash collector now thinks of itself as a recycling business.

Council Associate Partner Veolia is pushing to recycle half of Britain’s household waste by 2020 and it’s making rapid progress toward that goal. Its efforts attracted the attention of the Telegraph, which profiled Veolia’s progress and efforts to do more.

The report finds that its recycling drive isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good for the region’s economy.

Turning trash into cash
Veolia has invested more than £1 billion on its recycling ambitions in the UK over the past five years. Part of that investment includes 90 people there who are dedicated to research and development.

Estelle Brachlianoff, who heads Veolia’s operations in the UK and Ireland, says the company can recycle more than ever before. It’s recovering valuable minerals from street sweepings. It’s turning greasy fish and chips paper into cardboard cup holders. It’s even turning human sludge into plastic.

Brachlianoff tells the Guardian that her company is now a recycling business, no longer a straightforward trash collector. About 45% of Britain’s overall waste ends up in landfills; just 10 years ago, that number was 85%.

Doubts remain in the States
Meanwhile in the U.S., a New York Times opinion piece argues there is such a thing as too much recycling. And the author believes Americans are trying to do far too much.

John Tierney, who’s blasted recycling efforts before, argues that recycling plastic water bottles does more harm than good. He writes that New Yorkers are instructed to wash them out before they put them in the recycling bin. That wastes precious water, which, if heated, increases -- not decreases -- the carbon footprint.

Further, he says there’s plenty of room to bury the trash. He claims that all the American garbage for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of one percent of the land available for grazing. And those landfills could be turned into golf courses and parks after they are filled.

The New York Times quotes former E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter, who set a national recycling rate of 25% during the 1990s. Porter says it makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics, but most everything else is excessive.

“The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all,” he said. “It’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”

Britain finds ways to do more
Back in Britain, where Veolia found £200 worth of minerals in just one jar of road dust, Brachlianoff points out the company’s efforts have resulted in thousands of new jobs.

What can’t be recycled has value too. It powers 550,000 homes by turning waste into sustainable energy. Combined heat and power plants heat another 65,000 homes. And for its own part, Veolia created 21 times more energy than it consumed.

Today, the company is just 5 percentage points away from reaching its 2020 goal for cutting household waste that ends up in landfills. Brachlianoff acknowledges it isn’t easy, but has found that focusing on people makes it easier. She finds that simplicity is key. If people don’t know which recycling bin something goes in, they tend to give up. She also works with industrial businesses, helping them to save by more efficiently using their resources.

While some Americans may have doubts, she’s found there’s no question that recycling is worth it. She says the recycling business is no longer growing just because it’s good for the environment, it now also makes great financial sense.

More stories …
Sweden and San Francisco point the way to zero waste future
All that garbage: Cities explore one-bin recycling to reduce waste (and cost)
Convenience at a cost: Big U.S. cities opting for single-stream recycling