Plastic and oceans the circular economy in action

Published in the dossier of October 2018

Stopping pollution from land-based sources and transforming it into resources is a priority for Veolia. Because it provides 50% of our oxygen, absorbs 30% of CO2 produced by human activities, and contains the greatest biodiversity of the planet, the ocean plays a major role in life on earth. Its pollution is a global emergency and everyone’s concern (governments, manufacturers, communities, individuals). If nothing is done, by 2050 plastic in the oceans will weigh more than the fish that live in them.

Action is long overdue...

The UN estimates that 40% of the oceans are significantly impacted by human activities, including pollution, overfishing, and loss of coastal habitats. With regard to marine pollution, 80% is land-based and deposited by rivers or rainwater run-off. Global urbanization (over half of the global population lives in cities) and coastal development (40% of the population lives less than 60 km away from the coast) are also at cause. The facts speak for themselves: over 50% of wastewater is directly discharged into the sea without treatment and 80% of waste found in it is plastic. Hence the importance of prevention upstream, especially on land through collection and recycling and a fundamental change in our production and consumption patterns.

Global mobilization around the “seventh continent” of plastic

Internationally, the June 2018 G7 meeting in Canada resulted in five of the seven countries present signing a charter. The charter’s goal is to recycle 100% of plastics by 2030 and develop alternatives to plastic packaging to limit the waste flowing into rivers and ultimately ending up in the oceans and seas. In Europe, the Commission presented its plastic waste strategy (read A Hall dedicated to research into plastic sorting and recycling) in Brussels in January 2018 and proposed a series of concrete measures in May which included banning certain single-use products and the obligation to recycle, with the specific aim of limiting marine pollution.

“Europe sets the goals, but it is up to us to implement concrete solutions. The main issue is still the collection of plastic waste,” states Laurent Auguste, Veolia Director of Development, Innovation, and Markets. “Of course, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)* is an essential measure, but manufacturers still have difficulty in being effective in this area. Today, collection is both a key element and the weak link in the accountability chain.”

“Protecting our seas and oceans” strategy

Ocean pollution is an old concern for Veolia, directly related to its wastewater and waste management businesses. To go a step further, the Group has adopted a strategy called “Protecting our seas and oceans: combating landbased pollution and transforming it into resources” which was unveiled on World Oceans Day on June 8, 2018. The main goal is to stop land-based pollution (wastewater and waste) from entering the seas and oceans. Veolia proposes to move from a linear economy logic to a circular logic, acting at the interface between land and sea and acting on pollution sources. The approach is organized in three complementary levels:

  • treat land-based pollution flows on the coastline and further upstream (clean the coastline, treat wastewater to limit discharges to the sea, etc.);
  • prevent marine pollution by designing prevention and dynamic flow management systems to increase city and regional resilience;
  • transform production and consumption modes to move toward a circular economy.

Collection, the weak link to strengthen

Projects to collect plastic waste at sea are increasing, such as navigator Yvan Bourgnon aboard La Manta, Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup program, and Plastic Odyssey, the ship that runs on plastic, supported by the Veolia Foundation. These are all good ideas, but they do not act on pollution sources. As Rob Opsomer, Systemic Initiatives Lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explains, “to free our environment from plastics, we have to do more than clean up beaches or remove plastic from the ocean; we have to fundamentally rethink the way we make, use and re-use plastics so that they don’t become waste in the first place.” It is therefore urgent to act in the field... especially in the many regions of the world that are not yet equipped with infrastructure to collect and treat waste. “In developing countries, where there is a huge amount of plastics in the oceans, waste collection is virtually nonexistent,” notes Laurent Auguste. “And separate collection even less so. It is there fore difficult to set ambitious goals under these conditions! A lot of background work needs to be done to structure sectors, with different models than those used in Western countries. Thus, the informal economy, a reality in some countries, such as India, can recover paper, cardboard, metals, and plastics with high added value, such as PET.

” However, developed countries are still a target because “plastic collection rates remain low despite the systems in place,” continues Laurent Auguste. “Hence the Group’s focus on raising consumer awareness as they are key actors in the circular economy.”

Toward a global plastics processing industry

Veolia has two very useful assets for the construction of a global plastics recycling and recovery industry: its very local presence, which allows it to be closer to plastic waste deposits, and its international presence, which allows it to establish a global recycling platform. These two aspects are a plus for major brands and plastics companies which are very concerned about their environmental footprint and are also looking for viable solutions that can be developed locally before being replicated elsewhere.

“Manufacturers have more difficulty in making an impact in a region and connecting with all the public and private stakeholders present,” stresses Laurent Auguste. “We play a facilitating and ‘structuring’ role for the industry by helping the main private stakeholders in the value chain work together to develop and then implement the systems and solutions of tomorrow.”

This is a good way to fuel reflection on current (material flow management, development of the EPR model in other areas of the world, etc.) or future issues, such as a financial compensation system, like carbon quotas.

Increasingly responsible partnerships

“Sustainable management of natural resources by promoting the circular economy” is one of Veolia’s nine commitments to sustainable development. “

"This commitment is an opportunity to create value for our customers and manage environmental risk,” highlights Pierre Victoria, Veolia’s Director of Sustainable Developement. “It includes three areas: prevention of pollution, preservation of natural resources, and development of the circular economy, as well as the Group’s strong involvement in biodiversity through various partnerships with IUCN, BiodiversiTerre, and, more recently, Act4Nature.”

This is why the Group has invested in several internal Research & Innovation programs on recycling processes and microplastic characterization in cooperation with outside laboratories and local communities. Veolia has contributed to scientific programs for many years through its Foundation and supports Tara Expeditions and the Remora initiative to restore aquatic environments in Cap Sicié (southern France). Veolia is also a core partner in the New Plastics Economy initiative, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to develop production systems. Finally, the Group participates in the work of the World Economic Forum, the WBCSD, and, in France, Enterprises for the Environment (EpE) and Comité 21 think tanks, which work, in particular, on changing production and consumption modes.
Veolia believes that the worldwide mobilization of all the stakeholders in the value chain, down to the individual, will make it possible to eradicate the scourge of plastic in oceans.


Our Ocean Conference in Bali: Veolia signs the Global Commitment to eliminate plastic pollution at the source
High seas, an intergovernmental conference coming soon
Boyan Slat, 20: his plan to save the oceans
A great bubble barrier to stop marine pollution in its tracks
Yvan Bourgnon, captain of the first ocean garbage boat


*Included in French law since 1975, the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is that manufacturers, distributors (for own-brand products), and importers (which place products generating waste on the market) must manage, including financially, this waste.
(Source : ADEME elements-contexte/filieres-a-responsabiliteelargie-producteurs-rep)