The largest part of our business—operating EfW facilities—is widely recognized internationally as a source of GHG mitigation. On average, the U.S. EPA has determined that EfW facilities reduce the amount of GHGs expressed as CO2 equivalents (GHGs or CO2e) in the atmosphere by approximately one ton for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) combusted. By avoiding emissions that would have otherwise occurred, EfW is the only major source of electricity that reduces GHG emissions. In this way, EfW facilities play an important role in the climate change solution.

Covanta Palm Beach EfW facility

Reducing Net GHGs through EfW

The ways in which materials and waste are managed have a significant impact on climate. The U.S. EPA has found that the full life cycle of materials management, including the provision of goods and food, is responsible for 42% of U.S. GHG emissions. Waste reduction, reuse and recycling are the best ways to reduce GHG emissions from waste management. After we’ve exhausted those options, EfW is the next best option. Landfills, the third-largest source of the greenhouse gas methane, are the least preferable option. Methane is a potent short-lived climate pollutant that is 34 times stronger than CO2 over 100 years and 80 times stronger over 20 years, when all of its impacts are considered. And yet, every year, the US landfills 64% of waste, roughly 250 million tons.  Learn more about the importance of methane here.

EfW facilities reduce GHG emissions, even after consideration of stack emissions from combustion, by:

  • diverting post-recycled solid waste from landfills, where it would have emitted the potent GHG methane for decades, even when factoring in landfill gas collection;
  • generating energy that otherwise would have been produced by GHG-emitting fossil fuel power plants; and
  • recovering metals for recycling, thereby avoiding 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. U.S. EPA scientists, in a prominent peer reviewed paper, concluded EfW facilities reduce GHG emissions relative to even those landfills equipped with energy recovery systems.

Climate Adaptation and Resiliency

Overwhelming scientific consensus points to a changing climate as a result of human activity. Even with dramatic reductions in GHG emissions, our climate will continue to change, and we will increasingly see the effects of climate change in the form of sea level rise, increased frequency of coastal flooding and increased frequency and severity of storms. A few of our facilities in the United States are located on estuaries that could become affected by storm surge. We also operate numerous inland facilities along the Eastern Seaboard that can be affected by hurricanes and other coastal storms.

During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, several facilities were impacted on a short-term basis due to disruption of MSW collection and transportation systems, local power distribution system outage and equipment damage. The most significant impacts were felt at our Essex County facility where a prolonged local grid outage prevented us from starting up even after our local repairs had been made. Since then, we’ve hardened critical infrastructure, raising electrical equipment and even installing a watertight bunker around our emergency generator, to ensure we can start up our facility without grid power.

GHG Inventory Reduction Targets

Many sustainability programs prominently feature reductions of Scope 1 (direct emissions), Scope 2 (purchased electricity), and Scope 3 (supply chain) GHG emissions, often in response to encouragement from groups like CDP and sustainability rankings. We applaud these initiatives, and in many cases, help support our customers’ efforts to reduce their Scope 3 emissions inventories associated with waste management. Landfilling can be a major source of Scope 3 emissions. Switching to EfW provides an opportunity to reduce these emissions. As EfW generates a useful product in the form of recovered energy, stack GHG emissions from downstream waste managed at EfW facilities do not get attributed to a generator’s Scope 3 inventory, in accordance with accepted Scope 3 guidance.

EfW facilities are known sources of GHG mitigation and are eligible to generate carbon offsets, by providing an alternative to landfill disposal. Our process generates a Scope 1 emission from the combustion of materials containing fossil-based carbon (e.g., plastics), yet also generates a GHG reduction simultaneously by diverting waste from landfills, recycling metals and displacing fossil fuel-fired electricity and steam generation. 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.

EfW’s Most Effective Tools in Reducing GHG Emissions

Project / GHG Reduction Goal Type GHG Emissions Reduction as Tons CO2e
Additional energy recovery capacity 0.6–1.2 Per ton of MSW diverted
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

However, we know that we cannot remain complacent. While EfW is a critical element of reducing GHG emissions from the waste management sector today, reaching the levels of GHG reductions that we need by mid-century to stem the largest impacts of climate change will require innovative thinking. As part of our vision for protecting tomorrow, we have established a new sustainability goal to set a science-based target and implementation plan by 2022 in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures.

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. We also remain committed to transparently reporting our GHG emissions. Covanta reports its GHG emissions to the U.S. EPA GHG Reporting Program and has been responding to the CDP climate change questionnaire since 2007. For more information, please see Covanta’s 2019 and 2020 CDP responses, covering 2018 and 2019 disclosures, respectively. Our Scope 1 (direct), Scope 2 (indirect) and Scope 3 (indirect) emissions can be found in the Performance Tables.

EfW and Emissions-Limiting Programs

Although EfW is widely recognized as a source of GHG mitigation, our combustion process results in facility-level GHG emissions that could be subject to cap and trade or other laws or regulations designed to limit or reduce GHG emissions. In 2018, 3.1% of our total equity-share GHG emissions were subject to a cap and trade program. We continue to advocate for consistent treatment of GHG emissions from the waste management sector to ensure that economic signals (e.g., allowance purchase requirements, carbon taxes) align with the relative life cycle GHG emissions of different waste management options.

Covanta’s EfW position in current emissions-limiting programs is as follows:

  • The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS), the largest and longest running carbon cap and trade program, excludes EfW from the cap. The benefits of EfW are also recognized though the concurrent inclusion of EfW in renewable energy programs and the implementation of the landfill directive.  The landfill directive calls for a minimum 65% biodegradable waste diversion from landfills to alternatives, including recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion and EfW.
  • California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (“AB 32”) seeks to reduce GHG emissions in California to 1990 levels by 2020, through an economy-wide “cap and trade” program. EfW facilities were exempt from the cap and trade program through the end of 2017. A regulation was finalized in 2019 that brought EfW facilities into the cap and trade program with a provision for free allowances that reduce the compliance burden. A resolution passed by the Board of the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) in 2018 directed the agency to provide additional allowances to help further reduce the compliance burden.  Landfills, despite being identified as having a higher GHG emissions intensity by California regulators, remain out of the program.
  • The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”) is an operating regional cap and trade program in the Northeastern United States focused on fossil fuel-fired electric generators; it does not directly affect EfW facilities. We operate one natural gas-fired boiler at our Niagara facility included in the RGGI program.
  • EfW is recognized as a source of credits under the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), where more than 40 projects have been registered with a combined annual GHG reduction of 5 million metric tonnes of CO2e a year.