There is no doubt that the circular economy is the waste management industry’s main talking point right now. Anyone who is anybody has the circular economy on their lips, in their business plan or, even more adventurously, in their job title.
Dr Forbes McDougall at Veolia UK has all three.
As head of circular economy at Veolia, a post he has held since November 2014, McDougall’s entire life is comprised of working, eating and sleeping the circular economy, and it is a role he clearly enjoys.
But what exactly is the CE all about?
McDougall says he doesn’t see the CE as a ‘nebulous’ concept but as a functioning business model that has the potential to help the UK economy grow while at the same time minimising the amount of non-renewable resources that are extracted.
An Imperial College London report commissioned by Veolia and launched in June, The Circular Revolution, states: “The focus is no longer just environmental, it’s all about the bottom line.” This is a sentiment which encapsulates McDougall’s approach, although he is the first to admit that helping people understand his job is still “work in progress”.
Emperor’s new clothes
“Initially when I first started, I was asked: ‘You’re head of what?’ There was almost a case of the emperor’s new clothes surrounding the economy. I also feel that some people try to make the CE more complicated than it needs to be. Our view is that it’s fairly simple. You’re looking to keep as much value in the system as possible, whether it’s as a raw material, new product, green energy or clean water.”
And this is a way of thinking that has the potential to pay dividends. Research that forecasts how the CE could benefit the world’s economy throws up impressive figures.
“The World Economic Forum has forecast that the circular economy will contribute $1 trillion per annum globally by 2025… [and] by using resources in a closed loop system [there] is the potential to contribute £29 billion (1.8%) of GDP and create 175,000 new jobs in the UK,” states the Imperial College London report.
This makes a powerful argument and helps McDougall in his quest to persuade companies to see the CE not as a tick-box exercise, but as a highly effective business tool.
“My job is to engage with companies and demonstrate to senior management that we cannot continue with ‘end of pipe thinking’ with its law of diminishing returns. We are now at a point where you can’t go any further with that mentality,” explains McDougall, although it sounds as if he’s got his work cut out for him. “When you talk about the CE, some people’s eyes glaze over. This is not unusual as everyone is at a different place on their sustainability journey.
“Some companies still just want their waste materials to be taken away, while others understand that they can make money out of their waste materials and build corporate reputation with sustainability reporting. You have to understand where companies are, engage with them and decide how best to move forwards together.”
McDougall recalls a recent experience when he met with a customer after the Veolia team spent a day brainstorming and developing a vision and a strategic approach.
Seeing the potential
“We know quite a lot about the company so we knew that there’s projects we can only do together; then we said: ‘We’ve got this vision which is big and will require time and money, but this is what it will return in the way of savings.’ Suddenly the customer can see that their site has the potential to become a lot more circular and deliver significantly more value across energy, waste and water. Data still has to be tested, but the seed for an exciting idea has been planted,” says the head of circular economy with understandable satisfaction.
He goes on to explain: “First we help businesses get the easy wins out of the way like source separation and recycling, and energy and water efficiency savings. This starts them off on a journey where you go on to demonstrate a vision, because if you’re just talking CE, so what?
“Our role is to help them understand the possibilities of CE and then bring them to life. That’s what we’re trying to bring to customers.”
According to McDougall, there are a lot of opportunities, including with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Most of the multinationals he currently works with are already engaging CE strategies.
“We are working with Business in the Community and they are targeting SMEs, who at the start of 2014, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, had a combined turnover of more than £3.5 billion in the UK. We want to engage with companies and I have to say I’ve been well received, as people can see how we can stitch together innovation across traditional recycling, closed loop recycling and CE.”
A question the head of CE gets asked quite often is: “If I took CE at face value, would I just be trying to help recycle more stuff?”
McDougall puts them right by pointing out that by talking about CE and just closed or even open loop recycling misses the much bigger synergies across waste, water and energy that can completely change the dynamics of a CE discussion.
Pressing the rewind button, how did McDougall get to this point in his career?
“I did a degree in agricultural biochemistry, a master’s in industrial biotechnology and a PhD in environmental engineering.”
McDougall then went on to do post-doctoral work in Holland that looked at industrial waste water, before he undertook more post-doc work in Asia as part of a solid and hazardous waste unit.
Returning to the UK, McDougall joined Procter & Gamble’s integrated waste management team, where he developed a lifecycle assessment model for municipal waste management systems that gave him broad exposure to global waste management.
“In the seven years I was there, we increased the corporate beneficial reuse rate from 54% to 90% with Veolia’s help. The new approach changed the whole way the company managed this business, and it was great as it was done within a purchasing department. This meant we only delivered projects that delivered savings,” recalls the head of CE. “This was a bit of a mentality change as getting environmental targets into purchasing was unusual at the time: normally environmental issues were run by the health and safety environmental team.
“When purchasing comes in and the focus is on making money as well, it changes the mindset and that brings out the best in both teams.”
McDougall then approached Veolia.
“In my role at P&G I was asked to join a judging panel at innovation meetings, so I knew what was going on in Veolia and one thing led to another,” he recalls.
As well as drumming up new business for Veolia under the CE banner, McDougall is also involved with internal training.
“Veolia comprises waste, water and energy businesses and there are many synergies across these areas. You can go to any Veolia site and see the interrelatedness between them. Instead of having three individuals going to site and speaking in silos, we now encourage the flow between the three areas. The aim of the training is to tease out opportunities.
“For instance, we’re seeing other waste streams that could be used, while in energy there are district heating options, burning biomass and biogas, and increasing energy efficiency.
“The guys who are invited to the training sessions are finding out about areas they’re not familiar with. At the start, they look bored, but by the end of the three days, they see lots of opportunities. The number of people who tell me ‘I’ve had an idea and I want to bring it to life’ is huge,” says the head of CE triumphantly.
In the meeting room at Veolia’s London office where we are talking, the company strategy is proudly displayed on the wall.
It says: “We are resourcing the world. We manufacture green products and green energy using waste, waste water and wasted heat as a resource mine. We provide tailored solutions for industry or municipalities to help them save and preserve resources.
“To achieve our vision, we focus on creating a team with a diverse range of talent that operates in a safe, innovative and sustainable environment in order to promote the green economy and build new markets.”
McDougall smiles as he contemplates the board. “Each employee has been given a perspex block with the statement printed on it and I have mine at home. My dad picked it up one day, read it and said: “That’s the first time I understand what your job is about.”