The Resource Revolution with Patrick Cairo

April 8, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Patrick Cairo. He’s the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at SUEZ Environnement North America. Welcome to Green is Good, Patrick. PATRICK CAIRO: Thank you very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Patrick, you have a fascinating story and journey leading up to this position you’re in now and all the great work you’ve done. Can you share a little bit, give a little bit of your background with our listeners before we get talking about all the stuff you’re doing at SUEZ Environnement? PATRICK CAIRO: OK, thank you. Just let me briefly say I’ve been in the water field, if you will, for my entire life, which is quite a bit. I’ve been in it at least 40 years, I’d say. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and got an Engineering degree there. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t sure. I really wanted to stay in engineering, and my advisor at Penn thought it would be a good idea to get into the environmental field. This was in the late 60s, early 70s. The best way to do it was to get my hands into the fray. I started working for the Philadelphia Water Department, and actually loved it. I went back to graduate school and got an Environmental Engineering degree and stayed with Philadelphia for about 20 years, involved with a lot of the issues they were facing in the environment and building new waste water plants, water plants, dealing with stormwater run-off and those issues. In the early 90s, I decided to join SUEZ Environnement, because I really wanted to carry this experience to other worlds, if you will, other parts of the world. I was the Technical Director there for a number of years. I worked from Paris and then came back into the States and joined SUEZ Environnement North America. I’ve been there for the last 12 years, really doing some of the things that I think we’re going to get into. That’s my background, and I’m quite pleased with all the opportunities that it’s brought to me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. We’re going to be talking today about rethinking our relationship with resources. For our listeners out there that want to follow along and learn more about the great company you work for, you can go to I’m on the site now. It’s a gorgeous site. It’s chockfull of a lot of information. I want to get into it right away with you, Patrick, because you have so much history and so much knowledge on these topics. I want our listeners to have the benefit of that. What is this resource revolution that you’re even referring to, and what does that mean to you? PATRICK CAIRO: What it really means is that our company, on a global scale, is really focused on three very important aspects of resources: water, wastewater and solid waste. To that, you can add other natural resources, certainly energy, to it, but the fact is that we’ve been consuming, as a society, not just in the U.S. but really globally, these resources at a tremendous rate. In fact, we’ve probably depleted more of those resources in just our own lifetime than we have in all the histories that came before it. That’s primarily because of the very considerable population growth that’s occurred, the climate stresses, the overburdening of our infrastructure and really the poor conditions those infrastructures are in. We really have to learn to change from a society that depletes resources to a society that really recovers and creates new resources. That’s what our company is all about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So your company is basically at the convergence of the transferring of our society from a linear economy to a circular economy. PATRICK CAIRO: That’s right, yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about what you guys actually do. SUEZ Environnement has been a leader for over 150 years, which in this corporate world, is a very, very long time, with the shortening of corporate life cycles and stuff, 150 years is truly something to be appreciated and applauded. Talk a little bit about what frontiers you’re actually working on, and how you’re attacking each of these different issues with regards to resource reallocation and the revolution that’s going on now in water and waste and other topics that are very important to the sustainability of the planet that we live on. PATRICK CAIRO: OK. First of all, just to go back to our history, the name, as you can probably tell, has something to do with the Suez Canal. Our company dates back to the 1860s, when the Suez Canal was first built. We’ve evolved over those many years into being focused totally on water, wastewater and solid waste. In those areas, we’re really focused on things like how to produce energy from waste, how to deal with the secondary raw materials, now I’m talking about solid waste areas, that rejuvenate some of those products so we’re not always having to go to first source materials, and in water and wastewater, we’re very, very involved with not only producing high-quality drinking water for a lot of the customers we serve, but also just as importantly, to take spent wastewater, and not just treat it so it can go into the rivers, but treat it so it can be reused and reinjected into underground aquifers, so we’re not constantly drawing down those aquifers, as happens in many cases, and have those depletions occurring. Again, it’s the whole cycle of taking a particular resource and ensuring that when we use it, we can recover it and reuse it for the same purposes or other purposes associated with it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Just recently, in the last couple of months, we saw Bill Gates make the rounds in the media with his new poop water concept. Explain what that means to us. Is that the real future of where we’re going with regards to recycling water and trying to make our planet more sustainable because we have such massive water shortages today? PATRICK CAIRO: Yes, I think that there are some very, very good opportunities out there for either using low-volume water for waste purposes or extracting the contaminated material from there. What Bill Gates was focusing in on is the developing world, in the rural areas particularly, I think, where there’s great application for that because that sanitary waste not only contaminates the water, but also can create very serious diseases for people if it’s not treated properly. Our focus as a company is more on a broader scale. We work primarily in both the developed and developing world, but we work in larger populated areas, where there are tremendous stresses as a result of the migration of populations. As you probably know, over half of the population of the world today lives in primarily urban centers because they’ve had to move there for economic purposes and just for their own wellbeing in that area. That produces tremendous stresses to those localities. Oftentimes, those localities, by the way, happen to be in areas where it’s water scarce, so it’s not the most ideal place for developments to occur, but they do for other reasons, so we have to find really creative ways to deal with the water needs that those places have. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How do you approach rebuilding, in so many ways, our municipal infrastructures across America that are worn out or overrun, as you point out, and the mixture of private industry and private finance? How do those public-private partnerships start leading to better solutions? Where does SUEZ fit in the interrelationship there? Are you the facilitator that brings people to the table and creates these constructive collaborations that make for better solutions? PATRICK CAIRO: Yes, our skillsets, if you will, are, as you’ve indicated, to assemble the right teams to address these considerable projects, and then we also have some technological capabilities for various types of treatments. Then, last but not least, we’re also very experienced and very good at operating those systems for the long-term. Kind of stepping back to what you said, it’s absolutely true, and unfortunately, in the United States, which obviously is a very developed country, the area that’s been really neglected is the infrastructure. It’s something that I’m sure everybody has heard. I know your listeners are quite aware that this is a focus that’s been talked about in Congress, by the President and others, but honestly it’s being talked about because it’s reached crisis proportions. There’s a tremendous amount of underground infrastructure, which is totally neglected. It’s not something people will stay up night worrying about because there’s plenty of other social issues to focus on, but in reality, those are the things that are creating a lot of damages to our cities in terms of collapses or just roads that are settling down. From a water standpoint, the loss of water is considerable. Cities like New York, Philadelphia, about one-third of the water that’s extracted and treated at a great cost is then lost because of leaking pipes or pipe breakages that occur. What we do as a company is we bring in a whole solution. We bring in financing, we bring in the tools to replace that infrastructure, and then operate it, and we do this in such a way that we attack this over the long-term, for 30 or 40 years, as our concessions would occur. You’re not going through these cycles of spend and neglect, spend and neglect, that a lot of municipalities go through because they have to wait until a crisis occurs before it gets the attention of the voters and gets the attention of people who are willing to raise the rates necessary to achieve these kinds of improvements. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’ve got Patrick Cairo. He’s the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at SUEZ Environnement North America. To learn more about Patrick’s great work at SUEZ, please go to Patrick, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this very important fact about you. We had your friend, Joanne Spigonardo, on the show prior to you coming on today. Joanne pointed out to me, and I want to share with our listeners, that you were one of the founding members of Wharton’s very important IGEL program, and you’re still, of course, a member, and do great work there. Can you share a little bit about your personal vision and mission with regards to the original founding of IGEL, and why that’s maybe more important than ever today in 2015, your involvement? PATRICK CAIRO: IGEL is really a wonderful idea that Joanne and the folks at Wharton put together. A number of years ago, they decided that they wanted to have a structure whereby companies like ourselves, who are concerned about the environment, who are concerned about water, not only because of the treatment of water that we do, but also the importance of water for various industries that occur. They wanted to have a forum where we could work together with the academic world to look at these broader solutions that are necessary and tap the resources of the fine students and faculty that Wharton has. IGEL is part of the Wharton program that was put into effect, but also it includes other disciplines within the University of Pennsylvania, such as the school I went to, which was the engineering school, the law school, obviously finance from Wharton, but also the social science professors that are there. The interdisciplinary approach that they put together for IGEL is something that’s really tremendously attractive for all that are involved. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. We’re so thankful for your involvement there, and like Joanne said, you were really, truly one of the great leaders that helped put that together and still are one of the driving forces behind IGEL. Patrick, we talked a little bit about water, and we could spend the whole show, an hour, talking about water and it’s such a critical issue. Talk a little bit about, also, the second frontier of interest that you guys work in at United Water and at SUEZ Environnement, the recovery and waste recycling industry. What’s exciting to you now? What new trends do you see there? Talk a little bit about a few great projects you’re working on right now in the recovery and waste recycling area. PATRICK CAIRO: OK. Again, SUEZ Environnement is one of the leaders in that field throughout the world. We serve some 52 million people in different parts of the world with collection, with incineration, with resource recovery, with facilities. In North America, we’ve tried to bring those kinds of skillsets that we have, and we’re gradually doing so. One area that’s been really a focus point of ours has been in Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. I have to say in all honesty, I think the Canadians are somewhat more committed than we are in the United States on resource recovery of solid waste, at least the municipalities. They really have programs in place and they’ve been there for quite a while, which start to really resemble what’s going on in northern Europe, in terms of waste recovery. In Edmonton, for a number of years, they’ve created an interesting culture of encouraging their people to bring their waste to what they call an integrated solid waste recovery center. About 60 percent of the waste, and their goal is 90 percent, but they’re at least up to 60 percent of the waste is recycled in various forms. We have the honor and privilege of being part of that effort with them, because we’re operating several of their process facilities that take the solid waste. What they do is they encourage people, if possible, to create some of the recyclable materials and separate them in what they call a blue bag program. Even if they don’t, they can bring their waste through the hauling systems that are in place, and then there is a material separation center, which we operate, which then goes in, opens up the bags, separates the materials into the various forms, and then utilizes those materials for resource recovery. What it does is it separates the papers, the cardboards, the plastics, the tin, the steel, the bottles, bottles of different colors, and some of it is used for energy recovery, and some of it is just used for secondary material for recovery. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is that one of the paradigms that you think will continue to spread? Is that a successful paradigm in waste and recycling recovery systems that will be used as a hopeful shining light that others can model themselves after? PATRICK CAIRO: Absolutely. You see that, certainly, in, as I said, parts of Europe, particularly the northern countries, are very dedicated to that for many, many years. You just can’t take this material and just put it in nearby landfills, the way we do in certain places here in the United States. Not only does it consume the landfill capacity, but it really doesn’t take advantage of the resources that this material still has. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Thank you, Patrick. We’re out of time today, but we’re going to have you back on to continue the great story that you share with our listeners today with regards to resource revolution. To learn more about Patrick’s great work at SUEZ Environnement North America, please go to Thank you, Patrick, for being a resource revolution rock star. You are truly living proof that green is good. PATRICK CAIRO: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure.