Estelle Brachlianoff: Cleaning up in the world of recycling

The Frenchwoman in charge of Veolia, Britain's biggest waste and water empire, has ambitions to expand further

When Estelle Brachlianoff's neighbours discovered what she does for a living, they all had the same question: how much of their box of carefully set-aside newspapers, cartons and bottles is actually recycled?

For the Frenchwoman who moved to London just over a year ago, it is an occupational hazard. Her business, Veolia, handles waste and recycling for a third of the population. Despite efforts to go green, many don't believe it is worthwhile, with stories that the majority of leftovers from our lives end up mouldering on a rubbish dump somewhere. Mrs Brachlianoff, who employs 14,000 people across her waste and water empire, is keen to debunk the myth.

"If you compare us with other big countries such as France, Germany and even Spain, 10 years ago the UK was in really, really bad shape," she said. "It was considered as one of the non-green countries because almost everything was landfill. It has changed quite quickly."

From 7.5 per cent in 1995, the UK is now recycling 43 per cent of household waste, and is on course to meet a European Union target of 50 per cent by 2020. The scales have tipped to the extent that last year Britons recycled more household waste than was sent to landfill. Mrs Brachlianoff reports that only 5 per cent of material in recycling boxes – the unrecyclable stuff that has been put in there by error – fails to be sent off for a second life. Now she is keen to up the pace of the green revolution.

First of all, don't call it recycling: it's a little bit more than that, although Veolia does process plenty of discarded cardboard and glass. What Mrs Brachlianoff is striving for is a so-called circular economy, where nothing goes to waste for long. It is a cause round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur has also championed through her foundation.

"The economy has been linear to date – at the end of its life, you throw things away," Mrs Brachlianoff explained. "The waste goes to be burnt or to landfill without anything being done about it. Our opportunity is to find secondary raw materials, so that you produce fewer resources for the planet's sake."

Veolia offers a number of examples, including the plant near Rugby in Warwickshire where street sweepings are sifted for precious metals such as palladium, used to make watch springs and dental implants.

Then there is the waste-water plant that is experimenting with the production of plastic from sewage sludge – a cute trick, but still not economically viable.

Next month, the company opens a heat-from-waste network that will heat five South London housing estates by burning decomposed household waste. The scheme, part of the £1bn being spent on new projects over the next six years, will be similar to one already up and running in Sheffield, where waste provides enough heat for 140 public buildings.

Veolia-made compost, produced from garden waste and food scraps, is already on sale in Travis Perkins and B&Q. This year, it has sold 60,000 bags to sprinkle on the roses, a volume that will ideally triple next year.

It is obviously a case of where there's muck there's brass but Mrs Brachlianoff often has to soak up falling scrap prices in fixed contracts. In the first half of the year, the group was hit by a 15 per cent drop in the price of recovered paper and a 12 per cent decline in scrap metals.

What has helped nudge the recycling revolution along has been a tax on landfill waste. From nothing a decade ago to £72 per tonne today, the levy has driven landfill down from 85 per cent to 45 per cent of all waste – as well as raising £1bn for government coffers.

The trend explains why Veolia is the biggest waste company in Britain but only the fifth-biggest in landfill, owning 11 out of 500 sites – some of which are under consideration for closure.

"That is on purpose – we don't think it is a very sustainable business in the long term. Having said that, we'll still have a little bit of landfill," said Mrs Brachlianoff.

Veolia is also decommissioning North Sea oil rigs and disposing of low-level radioactive waste, and plays a big role in the water industry. It is part of a consortium with Thames Water that is upgrading London's Victorian pipework, and is currently in the throes of renewing a contract with Scottish Water.

"We have a lot of ambition in this country to win some more contracts, not only in public-sector London boroughs but also in the private sector," she said. Such aims to expand may be why Veolia has been linked from time to time with a takeover of Viridor, the recycling and waste management arm of Pennon, the West Country water company. Mrs Brachlianoff says enough to knock any froth from Pennon's share price.

"No, we are not at all having any discussions with Viridor at the moment. I think we have everything in Veolia to succeed without having to buy a big company like that."

The 41-year-old goes to great lengths to persuade me she is running a British company, creating British jobs, that just happens to be owned by the French. The only area in which Britishness falls down is when she is searching for engineering recruits.

"I am surrounded by British managers and employees. The only non-British people we tend to hire are engineers because we have to. It is very difficult to find British engineers."

Mrs Brachlianoff also believes there is less of a push to get women into top roles in Britain than there is France, where the threat of a penalty and fine in two years' time is focusing minds. She looks forward to a day when the equality battle is no longer a business issue.

"We start to look at female faces and forget they are female: basically, it starts to become normal, and the more normal it becomes the more you suddenly have potential people appearing on your radar," she said.

So recycling fewer of those male chief executives would be a start?

London calling: Brachlianoff's life

Estelle Brachlianoff shied away from living in the capital's French enclaves of Battersea and South Kensington when she moved to London a year ago, and chose to send her two children, a boy and a girl aged seven and four, to English schools. That hasn't stopped the family from exploring a new part of the city most weekends.

The biggest change for her in doing business in Britain has come at mealtimes.

"In France, you are still doing business at lunch with some red wine, whereas here I am having a proper meeting with a sandwich."

Mrs Brachlianoff, 41, joined Veolia in 2005 as a special adviser to the waste management boss, rising through the organisation.

She latterly worked on international projects in Germany and America, before moving to London to take charge of the UK, recently adding the rest of northern Europe to her brief.

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