When it comes to mitigating climate change, people often think of things like closing coal-fired power plants or getting more cars off the road. But how materials and waste are managed also has a significant impact on the climate. In fact, roughly one-third of GHG emissions in the U.S. every year 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.

That’s where Covanta comes in.


Global EfW Net GHG Avoided


The largest part of our business—operating EfW facilities—is an internationally recognized source of GHG mitigation. On average, the U.S. EPA has determined that EfW facilities reduce GHG emissions by 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) diverted from landfill and processed. By eliminating emissions that would have otherwise occurred, EfW is the only major source of electricity that reduces GHG emissions.

Furthermore, EfW can generate carbon offset credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and the Verified Carbon Standard. Two U.S. EfW facilities, eligible due to their recent expansion, have sold carbon offset credits into the voluntary market. EfW was also eligible to generate emission rate credits under the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.


EfW contributes to the reduction of GHGs in the environment by:

generating energy that otherwise would likely be generated by fossil-fueled facilities;

diverting solid waste from landfills where it would have emitted methane for decades, even when factoring in landfill gas collection; and

recovering metals for recycling, saving the GHGs and energy associated with the production of products and materials from virgin inputs.

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 MSW components.

Treatment of EfW in Cap and Trade Programs

Although EfW is widely recognized as a source of GHG mitigation, our combustion process results in facility-level GHG emissions that are included in GHG inventories that could be subject to cap and trade or other laws or regulations designed to limit or reduce GHG emissions. Currently, none of our EfW facilities are subject to existing cap and trade programs in areas where we operate, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeastern United States, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme or the cap and trade programs in California and Ontario.

Our exclusions in California and Ontario are temporary, potentially expiring in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Administered equitably, cap and trade programs could provide an economic incentive for EfW (relative to landfilling), as a result of the lower lifetime carbon intensity of EfW (relative to landfilling) for the management of municipal solid waste. However, the California and Ontario programs initially exempted landfilling, resulting in the potential for a perverse economic disincentive for EfW if it were to be included in the cap. The temporary exemptions have addressed this issue as policymakers work toward long-term solutions.

GHG Inventories

Covanta reports our GHG emissions to the U.S. EPA GHG Reporting Program and have been disclosing GHG emissions to CDP since 2007. For more information, please see our 2017 and 2018 CDP responses, covering emissions from 2016 and 2017 respectively.

GHG inventories are very useful in understanding where our emissions come from and identifying long-term trends, but they do not help us choose between different options, like those available for waste management.

While EfW facilities are sources of net GHG mitigation, they generate stack or “Scope 1” GHG emissions of their own as part of normal operation. The more waste we divert from landfilling, the greater the net GHG reduction achieved overall. However, this also translates to an increase in our Scope 1 emissions.

GHG Reduction Goals

The only way we can lower our stack, or Scope 1, GHG emissions would be to process less waste. Doing so would increase the amount of waste going to landfills, and as a result, increase overall net GHG emissions. So, we focus our GHG emission reduction efforts on energy efficiency, raw materials, metal recovery, and most importantly, helping our customers divert biodegradable wastes from landfills.

Our most effective tools in reducing GHG emissions:

Project / GHG Reduction Goal Type GHG Emissions Reduction
as tons CO2e
Recovery of metals from ash 10.0 Per ton of aluminum
5.2 Per ton of copper
2.0 Per ton of ferrous metal
Energy efficiency projects 0.8 Per MWh of electricity saved
Materials management 1.0 Per ton of MSW diverted
0.7 Per ton of packaged foods diverted
Raw materials efficiency 0.8 Per ton of lime saved
2.6 Per ton of ammonia saved

We remain committed to providing customers with more sustainable waste management practices, even though many external assessments of our corporate GHG performance do not recognize the indirect emissions benefits these solutions generate.