The science is clear: Earth’s climate is changing in response to ever-increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. These increased concentrations are overwhelmingly the result of human activity.
While not always the major focus of climate policies, society’s management of wastes and materials is an important part of climate change mitigation. Roughly one-third of all GHG emissions are associated with various stages of materials management: extracting raw materials, making them into products and dealing with manufacturing waste and end-of-life disposal.
By following the waste hierarchy and pursuing a more circular economy, we can have a big impact. Leading countries in Europe recycle and compost two-thirds of their waste—or more—and recover energy from what’s left over.
Applied globally, we could save 3.7 billion metric tons of GHGs as CO2 each year. That’s equivalent to installing two million one megawatt wind turbines or doubling nuclear power plant capacity. Here in the United States, we could reduce GHG emissions equivalent to closing more than 60 large coal-fired power plants.
EfW’s Role in Mitigating Climate Change
The largest part of our business, operating EfW facilities, is an internationally recognized source of GHG mitigation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) diverted from landfill to an Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facility we can reduce life cycle GHG emissions by one ton of CO2e. EfW GHG reductions are quantified using a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach that includes GHG reductions from:
- Avoided methane emissions from landfills, even when considering landfill gas capture and energy recovery
- EfW electrical generation that offsets or displaces fossil-fuel-based electrical generation
- The recovery of metals for recycling
The GHG reductions associated with these three factors are significantly more than the fossil-based CO2 emissions from the combustion of plastics and other fossil-fuel-based Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) components.
EfW and Carbon Offsets
EfW has been widely recognized around the world as a technology that can help mitigate climate change. As such, new capacity is eligible to generate emission rate credits (ERCs) under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. EfW is also recognized as a source of credits under both the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). Under CDM, more than 40 EfW projects have been registered, with a combined annual GHG reduction of five million metric tons of CO2e per year. On a more local basis, two recent Covanta facility expansions in Florida, eligible because they represent new incremental EfW capacity, have been selling carbon offsets into the voluntary market. An additional Covanta facility in Honolulu has been successfully validated as an eligible project.
Working with Customers to Minimize Emissions
Our work helping clients and customers move up the waste hierarchy helps mitigate climate change further. We increasingly support both companies and cities in the development of comprehensive sustainability plans to first reduce, reuse and recycle as much material as possible, then recover energy from the waste that remains.
For instance, we help customers calculate their GHG footprint from waste management activities. Through our Covanta Verification-Ready service, customers are provided with a verifiable GHG footprint of the waste stream we manage on their behalf, as compared to other waste management practices. This service can help them make informed decisions about waste management options and more accurately report their performance.
GHG Emissions Inventory
While EfW facilities are sources of net GHG mitigation, they do have GHG emissions. We report our emissions to the U.S. EPA GHG Reporting Program, and we have been reporting our GHG emissions to the CDP since 2007. In contrast to landfills, our GHG emissions are measured, either through CO2 continuous emissions rate monitors or through the measurement of steam output and an emission factor. Each of our U.S. facilities collects quarterly stack samples for radiocarbon analysis to determine the fraction of carbon that is biogenic in origin. With this sustainability report, we have begun reporting our Scope 3 emissions associated with raw materials consumption in our EfW and biomass facilities.
Climate Change Risks for Covanta
We recognize that, as much as our business is part of a pathway to lower GHG emissions, climate change could materially affect our business. Significant shifts in weather patterns and volatility could have a positive or negative influence on our existing and prospective business. Meteorological changes could lead to increased operating costs, capital expenses, disruptions in facility operations or supply chains, interruptions in waste generation and delivery, and changes in energy pricing, among other effects.