January 2020: the last “business as usual” days for the planet yet Covid-19 was barely making international news. Outside mainland China, only SARS-hardened Hong Kongers were wearing daily masks. Just a handful of cases had spread into the wider world.
Within mainland China, of course, it was a different story. Authorities were already fighting tooth and nail to contain this new and contagious virus. Wuhan was in a total lockdown. And some 350 miles east of Wuhan, nestled in the scenic lake environment of Hangzhou, one of the eastern seaboard’s largest hazardous waste facilities was gearing up for the mightiest challenge of its career.
Pandemic strikes at waste peak
“Lunar New Year, China’s largest human migration, is already peak time in the waste resource business,” explains Dai Bing, General Manager of the Hangzhou Lijia Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility, managed by Veolia.
Millions of businesses, from mom-and-pop shops to global tech firms, go into overdrive with spring cleaning routines. “And many waste facilities shut down for weeks, leading to a peak before the holidays,” says Dai.
As an international joint venture serving industrial clients who do not have the luxury of shutting down for lunar holidays, Lijia made a practice of maintaining full capacity over the New Year period. As such, when Covid-19 struck the heart of China, Lijia was one of few plants in the region running at a full speed.
Circular economy professionalism restores confidence
While recycling was the furthest from anyone’s mind at this time of crisis, the adoption of Veolia’s circular economy principles of waste as a resource gave Lijia a sound footing for managing the crisis. The firm quickly emerged as a leader in the province, formulating actionable advice for the government including the movement, transfer, handover, tracking and reporting of these new waste streams, assuaging government fears over contaminated waste comingling with domestic waste streams, and attaching a calm, professional confidence to the whole operation, which extended into government policy. The Zhejiang Multi-Level Emergency Command Department drew on the policies and recommendations of plant management as government and corporates navigated the situation.
On the ground, Veolia’s emphasis on a safety culture kept operations not only professional but also calm — without panic or fear.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply the world over, but a careful and rational approach — and support from Veolia teams globally — assuaged fears of running out. The plant at first controlled the use of PPE, delimited hazardous zones and implemented new protocols for different areas. Using PPE appropriately reduced operational risks while preserving critical stocks.
The firm even provided PPE assistance to some government agencies.
Within a few days of its appointment by the government, Lijia was handling double its usual waste. What’s more, the government required all medical waste to be handled within 24 hours instead of 48, which meant a shift in its incineration mix and doubling the pre-treatment workload.
“With the facilityworking outside all expected parameters, senior management stepped onto the front-lines to support and ensure safe working hours,” says Dai, “and to boost morale and confidence.”
Veolia’s solution demonstrated to the client and government the flexibility and skill to adapt waste volumes treatment in these times of crisis. Management, training and technical expertise all played a part in deploying the capacity upgrade. From Chinese New Year to early September, the facility trucked in and disposed of almost 2,000 metric tons of waste from Hangzhou Medical Observation Point and the province’s quarantine zones — on top of its usual peak season hazardous waste processing work. Dai Bing says the efforts are a testament to the staff and operational professionalism of the plant.
But is such a peak sustainable? According to him, the plant changed gears smoothly and under full control — this was no pell-mell dash leaving the plant and its workers exhausted and spent.
“We now know such operation is sustainable,” he says. As a franchise operation, the levels of waste handled by the plant are fairly predictable, set by government and clients: but at least, he says, “we know we have the ability to break through when required.”
New medical waste streams predicted in China in 2020: 179,000 metric tons
Staff typically on leave during Chinese New Year: 40%
Waste disposed from Hangzhou Medical Observation Point and quarantine zones and treated by Lijia, Jan-Sep 2020: 1,937 metric tons
Plant capacity during peak Covid-19 operation: 145%
Clinical or domestic? Veolia expertise cuts through the waste debate
As a clinical waste contractor, Veolia delivered logistic and strategic support to its health clients and the government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Tim Lee, Veolia’s National Sales & Business Development Manager – Health Industrials, Australia and New Zealand, is also chair of the Australian Biohazard Waste Industry group, which, he says, aimed to provide pragmatic and considered advice to government, industry and frontline healthcare staff.
At the early stages of the pandemic, in Victoria and South Australia for example, the definition of Covid-19 waste streams was complex, with variances across the accepted and unaccepted waste streams from site to site.
“We felt that there was room to help the industry and our customers align definitions and streamline processes around biohazardous waste management in relation to Covid-19,” says Lee.
“Our aim was to put in some very simple and practical measures for frontline staff to take so they could feel protected and that Covid-19 waste was prioritized properly,” says Lee.
The PPE-heavy waste consisted mainly of masks and gowns that were problematic for clinical waste shredders to process.
“Our commitment to the safety of our customers and the community was that untreated landfilling was not suitable, so we applied for new storage licenses to cope with the increased demand and slower processing times,” says Lee.
For its customer focus and support during the crisis, Veolia received the “Above and Beyond” award from South Australia Health on November 12.
Reflecting on the early weeks of the pandemic, Lee says, “It was unchartered territory, so we took an evidence-based approach, delivering flexible workforce solutions and working closely with our customers to deliver safe, sustainable and cost-effective treatment and recovery.”
Agility means new biocleaning opportunities
The Hollywoodesque sight of operatives clad in white biohazard suits spraying down supermarkets or bus stations would have sparked mass public panic in pre-Covid-19 times, but today such cleaning crews are commonplace in shops and offices across the world.
As businesses work to narrow down the locus of Covid-19 risk, disinfection of potentially contaminated surfaces and spaces is a frontline defense: effective, visible and even comforting to residents and workers.
Veolia’s French subsidiary STPI adapted quickly to provide basic training and services in biocleaning floors and work surfaces, as recommended by the High Council of Public Health and the Ministry of Solidarity and Health. Moreover, the Group leveraged the expertise it has acquired into an opportunity to serve more everyday facilities, packaging a new business offer that covers the disinfection of indoor spaces, the treatment of priority outdoor areas, the securing of the air-handling systems and the flushing and disinfection of water networks.
One of the first clients was the French defense giant Naval Group.
The team has been in action since the earliest days of the pandemic in France, with deep biocleaning at the Naval Group’s headquarters as well as strategic sites in Brest, L’Ile Longue, Indret, Ruelle, Bagneux, Toulon and Saint-Tropez, managed by Défense Environnement Services, a joint venture between Veolia and Naval Group. SARP, another Veolia subsidiary acting as DES’s subcontractor, regularly disinfected Naval Group’s locker rooms on the Toulon site.
The adaptation for Naval Group has delivered some other benefits, too: the deep biocleaning of air-conditioning vents has improved air-conditioning efficiency and reduced energy costs.