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Big Interview: Estelle Brachlianoff

She is petite but has a surprisingly strong handshake. Estelle Brachlianoff greets me cheerfully as we meet in her open plan office on the top floor of the Veolia building in central London.

Brachlianoff arrived in the city just over a year ago as head of the company’s UK operations, Veolia Environmental Services, and her role was later expanded (see CV box below). An “ooh la la” that slips out in the middle of the conversation dispels any doubts about her provenance.

“Oh, that’s so French - I apologise,” she laughs.

She might use French expressions, but her focus and Veolia’s are very much British: “We are investing a lot in the UK, £1bn in the next five years. This is a core market for us.”

The money is going into a range of waste and recycling projects. Veolia is not looking at specialising in any subsector of the waste industry or embracing any technology over others. Instead, it aims to combine different parts of the waste business and select the opportunities that allow it to create value out of waste.

“It’s not that the wider ranging business I have, the happier I am. We choose our battlefields through the whole chain,” says Brachlianoff.

Electricity and heat production will play a significant role in the company’s strategy.

“With energy-from waste (EfW) facilities and energy from landfill, we can produce up to 10% of the renewable energy in this country,” she claims.

Just a week ago, Veolia opened a district heating scheme - its second in the UK - in Southwark, London, to supply heating and hot water to 2,500 residents of the borough. “We will be able to fix the price of energy for heat for consumers for the next 15 years. That’s not bad considering the current debate on energy prices,” she points out.

Partnership working

All Veolia’s EfW plants in the UK are equipped to produce heat for district heating schemes, and the company hopes to create other schemes if councils or organisations express an interest in working in partnership to build the necessary pipelines.

Producing green energy is part of a strategy within Veolia to shift its business model from waste management to manufacturing, which Brachlianoff endorses.

“We want to be a real actor of the circular economy, doing a lot more than recycling,” she says. “We want to be a manufacturer of green energy, green products and green compost instead of just being the ones that help you get rid of your waste.”

She indicates some steps Veolia has already taken in this direction, including the opening of a facility at Ling Hall, Warwickshire, to extract rare metals such as palladium from street sweepings and a closed-loop plastics recycling facility in Rainham, Essex. Veolia has also been selling compost to garden centres and civic amenities sites.

“It’s quite a journey to move from being a waste management company to manufacturer, but I’m pleased that we have already examples to share,” she says.

Another long journey has been the one undertaken by the UK in the past decade to transform itself from one of the worst performers in Europe in terms of recycling to being among the “good players”.

“This country can be proud of what it has achieved in the past 10 years, in various respects, a main one being moving from a landfill rate of 85% to 45%,” she says. “The process was extremely fast and efficient, and I’m proud to run Veolia’s business here because we have been part of this great story.”

She supports the general view that the tax on landfill is one of the main drivers of the decline. But she believes the levy has achieved its maximum effect, and advises against increasing it beyond some adjustment for inflation.

“We should not get a lot further because it would become counter-productive, possibly leading to an increase in [illegal] waste export or in the number of non-compliant sites,” she says.

Creativity in Scotland

Brachlianoff says that Veolia is well prepared for the shift to separate collection that will take place in Scotland from January 2014: “We will have a look at it and see if we can we draw some lessons.”

She praises the ambition north of the border, claiming that the country is more advanced in terms of messages, trends and willingness compared with the rest of the UK. “Scotland tends to be quite creative,” she says. “But from dream to reality, we will need to look at the data.”

But the separate collection of municipal waste is not necessarily the best solution, she claims: “Separation is good, but [only] to a point. More and more source segregation would not bring about higher recycling rates.”

Commingled collection with glass segregated at source would be the best approach, in her experience. And in the glass field, Veolia is exploring alternative ways to recycle the material, in particular to decrease the amount that is processed as aggregate. Brachlianoff is unwilling to reveal more details on the project, of which we will be informed “when the time is right”.

Veolia has also commissioned its own study on future waste treatment capacity in the UK. Academics at Imperial College London are expected to produce a report on the issue within weeks. The study was prompted by the ongoing debate on whether the UK will have enough infrastructures to process waste arisings.

Brachlianoff says she was “fed up” with conflicting claims, so she commissioned a “deeper study on the data”. But she seems to know the outcome already.

“We do not think there is going to be overcapacity in the next few years, otherwise we wouldn’t be building any capacity ourselves,” she says. “We are fully at risk. It is our money, and we are putting it where we think there is still some need.”

Estelle Brachlianoff’s CV

Brachlianoff holds a degree from the École Polytechnique in Paris. She started her career by managing major infrastructure projects within the Val D’Oise region of greater Paris. She was then appointed adviser to the regional government, responsible for transport and development.

Brachlianoff joined Veolia Environnement in 2005 as special adviser to the chief executive of waste management. She was then in charge of waste management in the greater Paris area and also of the facility management and cleaning services branch.

She was appointed chief executive at Veolia Environmental Services (UK) in September 2012. Following a company restructuring in July 2013, she is now Veolia Environnement executive vice-president UK and northern Europe.

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