Erik Orsenna, economist and travel writer, and Jean-Marc Boursier, Group Deputy CEO for the Recycling and Recovery business in Europe, discuss their vision and their experiences of the circular economy.
Faced with climate change, finding a source of energy that is more sustainable and carbon-neutral is a crucial challenge for our societies. Maybe our waste is the solution.
Erik Orsenna: For a long time, we have had a completely erroneous idea about the production and consumption cycles. Like many economists, I learned that the cycle could be summed up as extracting raw materials, using them to manufacture consumer goods and then throwing these goods away after usage. This assumes a linear vision of the economy, but nothing could be more wrong. Let me explain myself. For years, when we no longer knew what to do with our waste, we buried it or burned it and the energy was lost. But why not use this heat, this energy, rather than let it disappear. That’s what SUEZ has decided to do, for example, near Toulouse, where it uses energy from the treatment of household waste directly to heat greenhouses and cultivate 10 hectares of tomatoes.
Jean-Marc Boursier: It’s important to note that energy is a subject that’s not easy to discuss from a strictly regulatory point of view. With regard to treating waste, legislators – both in France and in the rest of Europe – have a very explicit hierarchy in mind. First of all, public authorities try to reduce the volume of waste at the source and SUEZ helps them in this endeavour. The waste that is easiest to treat is obviously waste that wasn’t produced. Next, we aim to reemploy waste by extending the life of products and combatting planned obsolescence. Then comes the recycling or recovery of the material. Finally – and only then – comes energy recovery, before burial as a last resort.
So what you are in fact saying is that legislators penalize energy recovery, is that right?
JMB: I will say that legislators prefer all sorts of material recovery before they show an interest in energy recovery, however subtle it may be. The European Union has set a goal for household waste with a material recovery rate of 65% in 2030. What’s more, it wants to limit the amount placed in storage to 10%. Only the remaining 25% would be available for energy recovery.
Fortunately, in certain countries, the taboo against energy recovery has been removed.
In which countries, exactly?
JMB: I’m thinking of the Scandinavian countries that we visited with Erik. In Sweden and Finland, for example, the full calorific power of residual waste is used to produce heat for the district heating networks. Moreover, these countries don’t have enough waste. They have to import it from other countries to meet their energy needs. They prefer to use the waste’s heat-producing capacity rather than chop down their own forests. Do you realize what this means? Waste, which was formerly denigrated, has become a true import resource. That’s a real change!
On the other hand, in a country like France where energy is overproduced, the use of waste as a fuel is a subject that is still complicated to allow to emerge from a strictly prescriptive point of view.
What are the different qualities of waste for energy production?
JMB: There are many of them. Waste is abundant, unlike wind and photovoltaic energy. You will note that there is not wind or sunshine every day, but the production of waste is relatively stable on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, waste can be transformed into a virtuous energy source that is local, transportable, storable and sustainable since it involves very little carbon. For example, producing energy from waste recovery emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal.
For all of these reasons, SUEZ has decided to make energy recovery one of the pillars of its development. In fact, we already recover as much waste as energy as we do as material. We produce electricity, steam and heat. We also know how to make biogas through the methanation of organic waste, such as sludge from water treatment plants. In short, we have a very broad range of expertise and technologies at our disposal.
JMB: Yes, over time, SUEZ has become an important energy producer. In 2017, we’re going to produce some 7 TWh of electricity and heat, which is equal to the energy needs of a city of 1.8 million people. It’s as if SUEZ, with only waste as a fuel, met the energy needs of a city like Hamburg, Budapest or Vienna. However, we’re only at the beginning of the adventure and we need to keep on innovating to design the energy solutions of tomorrow.
Energy is also what makes our motor vehicles run. I have heard it said that we could operate our cars with bread. What’s this all about?
EO: Yes, it’s true. I’m going to tell you a little story about bread crumbs. In Gothenburg, Sweden, I met a manufacturer who produces bread. Now, consumers want sliced bread, sometimes without even the crust. So in the end, this manufacturer ends up with quantities of bread crumbs. Each year, he has between 1,500 and 2,000 tonnes of bread crumbs, containing sugar and fat. Once SUEZ has treated and recovered the bread, it’s this sugar that is used to make alcohol, more specifically ethanol, which can be used as car fuel.
JMB: The example that Erik is describing is typical of the positioning under way at SUEZ. A few years ago, we didn't think we could become an ethanol producer. And yet, today, we collect bread from our manufacturing customer and produce alcohol using a perfectly controlled fermentation process. This alcohol is then used as fuel for cars that in their turn collect the bread. A truly virtuous circle has thus been created in the Nordic countries. We also collect used cooking oil that Total will soon transform into biofuel for cars in its new bio-refinery in La Mède. I can give you a third example. SUEZ is working, within a consortium that includes Total, Airbus, Safran and Air France, to produce biofuels for airplanes. And, if we can dream for a minute, in four or five years, Air France’s airplanes will fly with fuel made from waste that has been collected and recovered by SUEZ. So our businesses are still evolving.
EO: Thinking wildly, today there is Solar Impulse, a plane that flies using solar energy. Maybe tomorrow, we’ll have Bread Impulse, a plane that will fly around the world thanks to bread recovered by SUEZ.
These examples show the need to design solutions collectively, in partnership with customers. How is SUEZ setting up this type of collaboration?
JMB: In the world of resources, we have not only customers upstream, those who produce waste and to whom we have been offering environmental solutions specific to their needs and to their industry since 1919. We also have customers downstream that use our resources, both material and energy, following an often complex transformation process. Who is better placed than these customers to help us determine exactly what kind of molecule they need? That’s why we’ve joined forces with customers like Total, Safran and Air Liquide.
How should these solutions be implemented on a local level?
EO: As in life, ecosystems must be created. That’s what I noted on my journey to Roussillon, south of Lyon. Several chemical companies are installed on the banks of the Rhône. They produce hazardous waste and also have important energy needs. SUEZ works with them, recovering their waste as energy while strictly complying with an approach and processes that are secure.
JMB: One of the best examples of these local energy loops can be found in the Shanghai Chemical Industrial Park, the largest petrochemical platform in Asia and one of the world’s two or three largest petrochemical industrial estates. SUEZ collects the platform’s solid and liquid hazardous waste and transforms it into energy – steam in this case – which is then reused by the same manufacturers. In other words, thanks to SUEZ they use the energy contained in the own waste, energy that is both local and inexpensive.
EO: We also talk more and more about short circuits in agriculture that bring the producer and the consumer closer together. These examples show us that the logic of short circuits also applies to resources. Recovering waste in situ to create energy is more environmentally friendly, safer and more economically efficient for everyone.
Looking beyond industry, what other sectors are concerned?
JMB: We work, for example, with Carrefour, which is one of the world’s largest distributors. SUEZ collects Carrefour’s bio-waste and transforms it into methane. This methane is then liquefied by Air Liquide at around -180°C and reused by a new generation of trucks that supply the chain’s own stores.
EO: Truth is not a straight line. It’s a loop or a circle. I understood that by working on the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. It’s a loop, just like everything else in nature. In nature, there are no garbage cans and there is no waste. The principle of life is its unity, expressed by Lavoisier, who said: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed."
What’s the medium and long-term outlook for SUEZ concerning energy recovery?
JMB: As we have seen, some countries are very much in the forefront with regard to energy recovery, while others are more resistant. However, it’s a trend that has been developing throughout Europe for thirty years and began expanding into other regions of the world more recently. SUEZ has received many requests from Africa, China, the Middle East and Australia, a country that is opening up to energy recovery and where we’ve been mostly storing and eliminating waste until now. This boom can be explained by the fact that recovering energy from waste makes it possible to solve two problems at the same time: reducing one’s environmental footprint while increasing one’s energy independence. I firmly believe that waste is a resource that has a lot of virtues.
The big idea that we need to express is that waste shouldn’t be the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s the beginning of a new story. It’s up to SUEZ to invent the industrial channels that will make this new life possible.