Environmental services company Veolia, headquartered in Paris, is present in 50 nations around the world and does more than $28 billion of business annually. Veolia has around 169,000 employees working across nine geographical zones, including North America.
“Our tagline, if you will, is ‘resourcing the world,’” says Veolia North America president and CEO Bill DiCroce. “It’s about helping to recycle, reuse, refine, and repurpose resources.” Most of Veolia North America’s business is B2B, although the company does work with municipalities as well, he adds.
“We started as a chemical manager and as companies focused on waste minimization and greener solutions, we’ve become more of an environmental services provider,” explains Veolia North America COO Bob Cappadona, who supports the company’s hazardous materials management businesses in the US and Canada.
Recently we caught up with DiCroce and Cappadona to learn about the challenges, solutions, and trends they’re seeing in chemical reclamation.
Are you seeing any big trends in the chemical reclamation space?
Bill DiCroce: Particularly in the B2B realm, not only do customers want their environmental and chemical reclamation challenges solved, they want to see more of a circular economy element to it. Whether you’re a buyer or a seller in that B2B space, there is a lot more pressure — environmental stewardship, costs, and public image.
How do you work with companies?
Bob Cappadona: We work with a client to identify specific chemistries that they manage and then come up with solutions that allow them to take the material back for direct reuse, take it back for a different reuse, or potentially market the material for a different end-use.
DiCroce: The line sometimes blurs between us and the customer because we’re their embedded environmental solutions people.
Cappadona: Customers come to us with, ‘I’m spending X number of dollars on a certain waste stream,’ or ‘I’m generating some large-volume waste stream. Can you help us identify an alternative end-point for it?’
With the volatility of the price of oil, at times you will see an end-market for certain recycled solvents and other times you may not. Basic things like acetone and alcohols are very easy to recycle, but sometimes more difficult to resell. More complex chemistries brought to us by our customers, oftentimes they can be re-utilized by the customer or there may be an alternative market for them.
DiCroce: We have to meet virgin specs. We have re-refineries where we take in their waste stream and re-refine it back to — or better than — the virgin spec available.
Has your process changed in recent years?
Cappadona: From a technical standpoint, some basic things — the acetones, alcohols, and oils — may have been a simple distillation process to reclaim. As we’ve gotten into more complex chemistries, it may be a multi-step process. You essentially become a chemical re-manufacturer. That complexity takes some of the more difficult-to-handle waste streams from a disposal option to a recycle option.
DiCroce: If you looked at us five years ago, our water, energy, and waste businesses operated somewhat separately. They weren’t integrated. We’re now organized geographically. In my geography, I’ve got all activities. The nexus for a customer across water, energy, and waste is strong.
Do you have an example of how they connect?
DiCroce: A food and bev company is trying to improve its environmental footprint, but they’re also trying to improve their production capability. When you start to look at the waste streams coming from food and bev, your ability to deal with water, energy, and waste is critical. If you take them in isolation, you don’t get the same answer. You have to look at the nexus.
What are the main advantages to chemical reclamation?
DiCroce: Whenever you can recover a stream and reduce the cost of disposal — and potentially reuse it — you reduce your purchase of virgin material. That’s the economic side.
On the environmental side, if there’s a hazard associated with a chemical, we follow it to its point of reuse or destruction. Bob’s guys are the best in the business at following that product all the way from birth to death or to re-birth. There have been histories of companies not being able to follow that path and they got into a fair amount of trouble.
Cappadona: When our customers’ employees see the things they’re doing to manage the materials, it builds on the brand of the company.
DiCroce: If you have a product that’s identified as a large generator of waste, that starts to diminish the demand. Pressure is everywhere, even on social media. The ability to track waste through its reuse or repurpose helps alleviate some of that pressure.
What are the biggest challenges companies face as they look at their waste streams?
DiCroce: When companies are deciding whether to recycle or buy virgin, historically that was on price. It was cheaper to buy virgin than recycled, and that would depend on commodity prices fluctuating. That pressure is still there, particularly when companies are competing globally. But as more visible pressure comes up from product constituents, we’ll see further gravitation toward recycled, reused products.
Cappadona: Just disposing of the material, that’s fairly easy for a company. It’s not necessarily the right thing to do, but it can be easier. You’ve got to do a little bit of work to make sure you identify the process for reclamation, the end buyer of the reclaimed product, and put all the pieces together. It takes time and research.
DiCroce: There is some risk initially to buy stuff that was a waste stream. These are some very sensitive manufacturing processes.
Cappadona: I would say that is perceived risk. Often the batches that we’re reclaiming are so small relative to what a chemical manufacturer does that it’s actually easier for us to hit the chemical spec. We’ve been able to meet specification for FDA materials — some of our reclaimed products are utilized in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
What’s an example of how you helped a customer?
Cappadona: At Dow in Pittsburg, California, we’ve taken a material in a solid form that encapsulated a solvent. It’s an expensive solvent. Prior to Veolia identifying a reclamation process, the material went to a hazardous waste incinerator. Through a proprietary process, we were able to get the solvent out of the solid and meet the chemical specification to resell that material back to the customer. We’ve been able to return 7.2 million pounds.
Our yield rate has increased. We were about 70% over the last couple of years. We’re at over 80% today. The balance of that tends to be water, solids, things that can’t be in their chemical spec. The remaining material may be reclaimed for another use, like a cement kiln as an alternative fuel.
Where do you see chemical reclamation heading?
Cappadona: Much more chemical customer-specific reclamation. Years ago, people were recycling standard chemistries. The volatility of the price of oil made that a volatile business. If you can do things that are specific to a customer’s chemical process — and hopefully sell the material or reclaim the material directly for a customer — it’s a more stable business model.
DiCroce: With the demand for squeezing off waste streams and becoming fully circular, companies will start to change their own processes so products are easier to recycle, reclaim, or re-refine. There will be more thought on the front end of production cycles and product launches. Let’s plan it that way.
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