Brian Clarke, Veolia North America's new CEO, has big plans to expand the French company's presence in the domestic waste sector.
His early career included an 11-year stint at Waste Management, including time as general counsel of the subsidiary Chemical Waste Management that was later sold to Veolia. Clarke joined Veolia Water North America's legal division in 1999. He has since held multiple positions within the company, most recently leading strategy and corporate development.
That tenure included work on a major deal to sell all of the company's U.S. district energy assets to Antin Infrastructure Partners for a reported $1.25 billion this summer. Former CEO Bill DiCroce left to lead that new business, prompting Clarke's elevation to CEO in September. He now oversees approximately 7,000 employees throughout North America and is open to a number of expansion opportunities – possibly even in solid waste.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and annotated for context.
WASTE DIVE: What should the industry expect in terms of Veolia North America's waste ambitions, now that the sale is going through and you've taken this role?
BRIAN CLARKE: Our colleagues in Paris have made it very clear in their public statements regarding the sale...that we are looking to redeploy proceeds specifically in the waste space. We're very interested in building out our hazardous waste, circular economy and water treatment capabilities.
So we're really focused on seeing what opportunities might exist for doing that. Either organically — meaning that we would invest in our own facilities to build out new capabilities and modify permits and the like — or to see if there were opportunities for acquisitions in the industrial waste and circular economy spaces.
We believe we have a first-rate, customer-facing organization (in the environmental solutions and services division)... Where we would like to get stronger and to build out our capabilities is in the treatment locale. So looking for opportunities to either expand or to acquire in the (treatment, storage and disposal) and hazardous waste space. Looking at technologies or service capabilities, where we could recycle industrial or special waste to really accentuate the theme that the company has on trying to reduce waste streams.
If you do choose to grow through acquisition, are there certain regions of the country you're looking at, or any other ways to define those plans?
CLARKE: In the spaces we're interested in, we will be hearing from anybody who's of any size or scope. [Based on] what comes on the market, we will be looking to decide whether it's the right fit or not.
Geographically, we're going to be looking to certainly fill out our network and focus our attention on areas where maybe we don't have quite the coverage that we do in others. For example, we'd like to look in the Pacific Northwest.
Clarke also outlines potential interest in expanding current industrial technologies that can be packaged as a service, such as potassium hydroxide recycling for gasoline refiners, as well as another area of growing alarm: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
You may be aware about PFAS in water and wastewater and we're certainly looking to better understand that and to see if there's an opportunity for us to provide service there, because it's a serious, emerging contaminant of concern for the public.
Thinking about Veolia's circular economy focus, are there any new or emerging waste streams you view as particularly interesting? Or types of infrastructure that you see as having development potential?
CLARKE: I think the one that is leading the pack by far is plastics recycling and finding a way for petrochemical manufacturers to receive back plastics that can be returned into virgin petrochemical or regenerated petrochemical... We've got a number of important global clients who are very keen to understand and to work with us on trying to find ways to do plastics recycling.
Last month, Veolia announced a partnership with Reckitt Benckiser to increase the use of post-consumer recycled plastics in the company's consumer goods packaging.
We are probably still really at the very bleeding edge of this work... Public acceptance and understanding of the need for recycling is not a hurdle at this point. People are keen to find ways to recycle. So that is not the challenge as much as sorting and finding appropriate technologies that allow for you to take the various elements of plastic...and then recycle it so that you can have what is in my mind most important to making this sustainable: an economic approach that allows for petrochemical manufacturers to say, "Yeah, that works for us."
I don't know that you have to be at parity with virgin production, but you have to be in the same ballpark.
Clarke confirmed that while Veolia North America doesn't have a large presence in the plastics space currently, the company is interested in potentially ramping up chemical recycling infrastructure .
This is something I've been asking executives this year from multiple companies. On the climate change side, where are you identifying key risks and opportunities for Veolia going forward?
CLARKE: Certainly we're identifying key risks. They're being identified for us, to be candid. We have a lot of activity, as you might imagine, on the Gulf Coast. And we have, for now more years than we would like to have happen, had our employees and our facilities adversely impacted by hurricanes. I am one that will say that yes, I agree climate is not weather, but weather does tell you a little bit about the climate.
So our internal focus from a risk perspective has been really heightened (and focused on) making sure that we create more resilient facilities.
Clarke goes on to cite examples of climate effects at Veolia facilities. One hazardous waste incinerator in Port Arthur, Texas experienced four feet of rain, but kept running. While a New Orleans wastewater treatment plant operated under contract also saw 18 feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Employees had to be rescued through a hole cut in the roof. Wildfires in California and other major weather events have also taken a toll.
From an opportunities perspective, I think we're probably still looking around and trying to figure out a way for our footprint to be decreased. We had facilities that have, in the past, deployed fossil fuel in the form of coal. The company has made a pledge that it will not have any facilities that operate with coal as a supply past five years from now, globally. In North America we are already off of coal as an example, because it's obviously not a fuel of choice.
Existing businesses within Veolia focused on energy efficiency consulting, among others, are also cited as areas for potential growth beyond the company's circular economy focus.
Looking ahead, how should we think about Veolia potentially being competitive in areas that overlap with the traditional solid waste industry?
Veolia sold its solid waste collection and disposal assets to Advanced Disposal Services in 2012. Waste Management is now in the process of acquiring that company.
CLARKE: Well, as a graduate of Waste Management, I will say never say never. But the solid waste space has changed quite a bit over the years.
I would say that we're probably going to be more immediately involved in things that maybe you'd consider adjacencies – construction debris, special waste. We right now work with waste-to-energy activities where we have relationships that will supply special waste to certain waste-to-energy facilities that are keen to take it, as a service for our customers.
I don't know that I can see an immediate, obvious path forward to become another competitor in the landfill, trash collection, recycling space at this point. But Veolia does that in other parts of the world and we've done it here. And the disposition of the solid waste business wasn't because we didn't think it was a good business and well-run. It was for reasons that had to do with wanting to manage our balance sheet and pay down some debt at a global level. So Veolia won't be shy to look at something if they think it makes sense.