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Covanta’s Communication Director Finds Creative Ways to Educate Public on WTE

Representing the company’s operations in five countries and six time zones, Covanta’s Director of Corporate Communications James Regan is responsible for external communication and serves as chief company spokesperson, supporting more than 80 waste-to-energy power plants, transfer stations and material processing facilities in North America and Europe. 

Named a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner for 2020, Regan’s career at Covanta began in 2009 in a dual role – Investor Relations and Communications – which helped him learn about the business and got him started on building important relationships within the company. 

“James is a born learner. He is a student of the waste management industry and always strives to know more and to be the resident expert on all things related to our company,” says Jill Stuec, vice president of marketing and communications for Covanta. “James joined Covanta early in his career in junior positions. He combined his interest in learning new things with his passion for personal and professional growth as he has progressed within the company. He quickly gained the trust of his managers and proved that he was a high performer.”

As part of the external communications program, Regan established and now oversees the management and growth of Covanta’s social media channels with more than 45,000 followers in total. He also partnered in the development of Covanta’s mobile game that are currently available in the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Waste360 recently sat down with the 40-Under-40 winner to discuss his role and the importance of communications in the waste-to-energy field. 

Waste360: Describe your career in the waste and recycling industry. How did you end up as director of corporate communications for Covanta?

James Regan: To be honest, I didn’t know much about waste and recycling prior to joining Covanta in January 2009. I had been working in corporate communications at a public relations agency that supported companies in the clean tech space and after learning about the opportunity at Covanta, I jumped at the chance. 

Waste-to-energy was fascinating to me – I never knew it even existed – and I knew I wasn’t alone. As a communicator, that challenge was intriguing. I would have the opportunity to change that – to help the public understand the many benefits of this important technology as part of an integrated sustainable waste management strategy. We have such a unique story and mission among the other companies in the solid waste industry.

In my early career at Covanta, I was a sponge. I learned a lot of about the business from a lot of smart people. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about my job. I’m constantly learning new things and I’m proud to help shine a light on our talented people and the important work they do. 

Waste360: Describe your role in the company.

Regan: I’m part of a dedicated team of communications and marketing professionals. I primarily support the business as the company spokesperson and oversee external communications. I also contribute to some internal communications and marketing work for the company.

Waste360: How do you educate communities, reporters and various stakeholders on Energy-from-Waste?

Regan: For too long, waste-to-energy facilities, or incinerators as they are often called, have been misunderstood in the United States. This is not your grandparent’s incineration. These are high-tech power plants that are fueled by society’s waste. 

I think the most important part in helping people understand our facilities is to get them to first recognize that waste must go somewhere – you can’t wish it way. There is an impact from managing the waste society generates – just like there is an impact from the cars we drive, the heating and cooling of our homes, and even mowing our lawns. 

It is an essential service that enables our way of life and currently there are two options for managing waste that remains after recycling – landfills or waste-to-energy facilities. The science is clear that waste-to-energy is far superior. 

These modern facilities divert waste from landfills and produce electricity using state-of-the-art pollution control equipment that protects people and the environment. They are also widely recognized as a means for reducing greenhouse gases—particularly methane—by eliminating emissions from landfills. And they are also large recyclers of metal. Covanta facilities alone recycle enough metal to build more than 400,000 cars annually.

My job is to help stakeholders understand these facts. We use a variety of tools and opportunities to do that, from websites and social media to community events and speaking engagements. Social media is one area that we have particularly worked on and continue to improve as a communications tactic. It provides us unique opportunities to amplify our community outreach work, build brand recognition, nurture an engaged workforce, support recruitment efforts, and share the views and perspectives of our experts.

Waste360: What are Covanta’s mobile game apps? How did they come about and what was your role in their development?

Regan: This is one example of how we have used technology as a tool to educate stakeholders about what we do. The Crane Game teaches users about how Waste-to-Energy facilities work. Players operate a crane to maneuver waste from a storage pit to the combustion chamber. 

Points accumulate from the amount of energy generated, greenhouse gases mitigated and metals reclaimed for recycling. Similarly, Sort n' Toss, was a game we developed that helps put users in the driver's seat as they learn about recycling and sorting. It allowed us to emphasize the importance of proper recycling in a fun, engaging way. 

Waste360: What is the Thought Leadership program for Covanta?        

Regan: We have a lot of talented and smart people at Covanta that are truly the experts in their field. We work with leaders across the company to provide expert analysis on trending news and amplify the importance of sustainable waste management in addressing climate change. We work to add their voice to topical news stories, as well as on speaking panels and various industry events. It’s a way to get our experts out there providing commentary on important issues, which contributes to Covanta’s brand recognition as leading provider of sustainable services for communities and businesses.

Waste360: What is your greatest achievement?

Regan: I can’t pinpoint a greatest or single achievement. I’m really proud of the recent work we’ve done during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of uncertainty, it has been very important to communicate openly and often to internal and external stakeholders. Despite the challenges of working remotely, we’ve done a number of things to ensure employees and the communities and businesses we serve heard from us. 

It was important for us to communicate about how we were handling the pandemic and continuing to provide essential services of waste disposal and energy generation. Some examples include increased media outreach for executives to discuss the performance of the business and also discuss our capabilities to handle medical waste with our experts in that area. We also deployed new tactics internally, including increased use of video. 

Waste360: What are some of your career goals for the future?

Regan: My near-term goals are squarely focused on continuing to improve the perception and understanding of waste-to-energy. The challenge of climate change is real, and we can’t keep wishing the problem away and sending our waste long distances to landfills. Many communities around the world and the U.S. have taken responsibility for their waste and invested in local recycling and disposal solutions. We have the tools and technology to address it today.

I also think it’s really important that we continue the discussion around diversity and inclusion. I recently worked on a Waste360 article with Covanta’s Diversity & Inclusion Lead. We’re proud to share the small steps we have made in this area and look to build upon this important work. 

Similarly, I think we need to continue our work to improve communications with the communities we serve – especially Environmental Justice communities. Many of these communities are over-burdened with emissions sources. We recognize that and it’s why we strive to reduce our impact as much as possible and engage with the local community so that they understand our operations and its true impact.

Waste360: If you weren’t in this industry, what else can you see yourself doing?

Regan: By working for a company like Covanta, where our business has a higher purpose of working to address climate change and create a more sustainable world, I have come to appreciate the importance of being passionate about what you do. If I wasn’t in the waste and recycling industry, I’d want to work for a cause I am passionate about – something where I could use my skills for a higher purpose. 

Waste360: What is your favorite thing to do outside of the office?

James Regan: I enjoy playing basketball (pre-pandemic) and cooking, especially making homemade pizza with my kids. 

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