Episode 129: Does Waste-to-Energy Have a Future in the US?

November 9, 2021

In this week’s episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Derek Veenhof, EVP & chief operating officer at Covanta. Listen to his thoughts about trends and innovations in sustainability and ESG, opportunities for ash and metal recovery, addressing hesitancy around waste-to-energy and more.

Covanta’s mission is to build a safer, cleaner, more prosperous world by ensuring no waste is ever wasted. It does this by helping a wide range of federal, municipal and commercial clients “recover, recycle and re-imagine the byproducts of our daily lives through innovative waste and energy solutions.”

Take a look at what we discussed:

Waste360: When you imagine a truly sustainable society, what comes to mind for you?

Veenhof: I go to a couple of pillars that I think about. Really, to me, it starts with education; health; wellbeing. I know we don’t often talk about sustainability that way; we often talk about it with the three Ps. I like to make it a little more personal. Education, health, and wellbeing to me are the key drivers—these are the components for people to live good lives. You can jump down from there and start talking about climate change, global finite resources, sustainability at its core, environmental impacts, equitable work for people…a whole lot of jumping off points from those three pillars.

Waste360: What concerns do you think are driving this movement?

Veenhof: First and foremost on a lot of people minds of course is climate change. I also think it’s the global finite resources that are putting a lot of pressure on the human population, which has been growing. We have to be smart about how we use those resources and get the most out of them. To me, those are the two chief concerns, and I think it all plays in to the third part, which is all about people. At the end of the day, the three Ps—people, planet, profit—the people component is huge.

Waste360: What examples can you give of what’s being done currently, to tackle these issues?

Veenhof: One of the best examples I can give you is what Covanta’s going through right now. We have a transaction pending with a Swedish company called EQT that, for 30 years has been at the forefront of ESG investing. They want to be at the forefront of change, and their participation in Covanta is one where they are saying, “This is a platform where we can benefit society from an ESG standpoint. We like what Covanta does; we want to do more of it and be a leader in the environmental space.” So I think that’s a sign, that financial institutions are looking at it through the lens of “where am I going to put my money?”

Waste360: What comes next for the waste industry?

Veenhof: We have to be prepared for policy change. Just like we still need a national energy policy, in my belief. There needs to be a framework around our waste-management decision making. We talk about the waste hierarchy, but policy needs to embrace that in a firmer way than it has. Policy needs to really direct people. How do we get reuse? How do we better design something so it gets to reuse and recycling? I don’t think we’ll ever get around landfilling; you must have it. But you don’t have to put all this processable waste into the landfill either. And thermal has a place in there, too.

Waste360: What do you say when people ask what renewables are worth, and what is the holistic path forward?

Veenhof: I don’t have fully all of those answers, but let me give you a snippet of some research the University of Buffalo did on the impact of our Niagara Falls waste-to-energy plant—roughly 800,000 tons per year. Their study showed a spin-off effect from that asset that was three-to-four times what our tipping fees were. Those are substantial, meaningful numbers.


Read the transcript here.

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