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Covanta’s Responsible Waste Solutions Are Powering the Future

This blog is the second in our series spotlighting leaders in the pursuit and development of Responsible Renewables Projects. This series is hosted in collaboration by Schneider Electric and Korn Ferry. For a background on responsible renewables, we encourage you to start with the primer blog exploring the issues and opportunities.

At Covanta, “Protecting Tomorrow” is more than just a tagline; it’s at the heart of their commitment to help build a cleaner world through responsible disposal of waste. Covanta was already thinking about responsible renewables and sustainable waste solutions four decades ago in the early 1980s and has since helped build a cleaner world through their responsible carbon-negative solutions. Having sustainably diverted more than half a billion tons of waste from landfills since the 1980s, Covanta also diverts nearly 10% of the waste generated in North America alone each year. Now the world’s largest Waste-to-Energy provider, Covanta is busy “Protecting Tomorrow” by helping other businesses overcome their waste challenges to deliver world-class sustainable solutions. This collaborative initiative demonstrates that Covanta is not only a key voice in the responsible renewables discussion, but an industry-leader that we can all learn from. We caught up with Tequila Smith, the Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Covanta to discuss accelerating towards net-zero, ESG concerns, and more.

Tequila Smith is the Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Covanta, a leader in sustainable materials management and a premier provider of environmental solutions benefiting businesses and communities across North America. In this role, she leads the design, implementation and measurement of both internal and external sustainability impact programs that address overall sustainability, environmental justice, government/regulatory affairs, and community engagement strategy. Tequila also has extensive operations and external affairs experience working at Southern Company, Alabama Power, and Georgia Power for almost 25 years. Most recently, she served as vice president of sustainability for Georgia Power, one of the nation’s largest generators of electricity.

What drives Covanta’s more than 40-year-long commitment to sustainable, inclusive, and socially equitable practices?

When it comes to waste solutions, many people think that all that can be done is reduce, reuse, and recycle. But for 40 years, Covanta has been focused on going beyond that, by reimagining how we can ensure less waste through climate-friendly processes.

As the Chief Sustainability Officer, I have the unique opportunity to tell not only our customers about what we do, but also the communities that we serve. One of the things I like to share that resonates well with both groups: is that from the coins that fall between your couch, to wastewater to expired pharmaceuticals to the waste that we all take to the curb, Covanta has a critical role to play in that. Not only have we been transforming this space for more than four decades, but we have also had an environmental justice policy and focus on renewable energy from the beginning that still drives our company and our people today.

To further accelerate our innovative sustainable projects into becoming a reality, we recently became the first company in the US to adopt sustainability-linked financing, with our purchase by EQT. Our partnership with EQT means that we have created very specific goals to address the types of materials that are recycled or reused, and the waste that remains. We’ve been able to accomplish all of these sustainable practices on our own for the last 40 years, but now with EQT’s partnership and support, we’ll be able to make an even bigger impact on sustainable waste practices around the world.

We understand that Covanta’s responsible waste reduction practices make a global impact. Who are some of the partners that you all work with across different areas and/or industries to implement responsible and renewable practices?

In North America, I like to highlight the municipalities around the United States that rely on us and help us succeed in our mission. We typically generate enough renewable energy to power more than one million homes every year, and we partner with a wide range of communities and municipalities, from Oregon to California, Hawaii, Florida, and more.  We do not take up the space that a landfill does, so we can partner with varied geographical and socioeconomical areas.

We also have incredible industry partners like American Airlines. Although the company was already recycling more than half of the waste it produced, their Wheel & Brake Center wanted to do more. You don’t often think about the wear-and-tear on airplane wheels and the waste that those wheels could create if not properly recycled. We help American Airlines clean the wheels and manage the water usage for this process. There is a very intense cleansing of the rubber material; and so imagine the amount of water and contaminated wastewater that can be created. Today, the wheel manufacturer sends 800 tons of its liquid waste to Covanta to undergo treatment or liquid direct injection, which separates contaminants from the water, or destroys and vaporizes them, generating steam that powers a nearby refiner.

Lastly, we are very proud of our partnership with the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to take on pharmaceutical waste. We spend a lot of time educating our customers and communities on the importance of not flushing pharmaceuticals down the drain. To do this successfully, we have partnerships with different pharmacies that offer secure return of unused pharmaceuticals to their facilities so that we can ensure those products are properly disposed. On a broader scale, this connects to the large amounts of contraband pharmaceuticals that the Federal and state governments seize. Some contraband and pharmaceuticals cannot go into landfills for safety reasons, so there are secure protocols in place to destroy these products. Many of those details are proprietary, but we are proud to partner with our governments on these critical projects.

Covanta certainly has a hand in responsible waste reduction in almost every industry. How does the Covanta team continue to inspire change and get so many different people excited about sustainable waste solutions and processes?

In short, the answer is continued, ongoing education in our communities. We regularly go to our communities to educate on our processes and their importance, but we do more listening than talking because communities don't need other people to tell them how well-off they are, or if they are disadvantaged — they live it every day.

What we’ve learned from listening is that educating our communities is just a foundational responsibility that we will, of course, continue — but what they want and need is true allyship to help improve their communities and have their unique needs met with dignity and respect. Part of allyship is transparency, and we have a renewed focus on being visible in the communities, which is why you can find our emissions data online.

We hire locally to create authentic connections. And, we now have one of the best-in-class community benefit agreements that we've introduced to one of our communities. The agreement says that as the revenues at our facility grow, the community directly benefits. We also created a committee of community members to decide where the money is spent so that it’s not Covanta deciding what the needs are — it’s the community itself.

We also host many community events. This could be in the form of a pop-up grocery store, which we just had in one of our communities. The community members actually had an opportunity to register and select what they wanted to receive, and so it becomes less about providing groceries and more about us listening to exactly what they needed. And when you invest in your community and show that you care, they invest back in you.

Check out one of Covanta’s pop-up grocery stores in action.

What are some of the main challenges Covanta has faced as the company has grown over the years?

Of course, the larger climate crisis is the biggest challenge that our company faces. It’s not just about coming together at a table to throw out ideas, though. To me, the more important step is what happens after that. When we go back to our respective businesses or organizations, are we keeping our commitments to the communities, and are we keeping our commitments to each other? Are we executing on the decisions made?

"We are firm believers that there's no one answer to our climate problem, and it takes everyone working together — private industries, public industries, academics, communities, NGOs, and partners like Korn Ferry and Schneider Electric."

I think for so long we've operated — we, as in all of these collective groups — have operated in our silos and wanting to offer different solutions, when actually, the solution is found when all of us come together to say, okay, how can we create jobs? How can we create even more renewable energy? How can we decrease the amount of waste that we produce? How can we go even more above and beyond for our communities? When we all work together, we’ll start to see substantial change.

Covanta leads the charge when it comes to sustainable waste solutions, and they are working to do things that are truly transformational — something that makes concrete, near-term, and lasting changes for the better in pursuit of their goal to become the most sustainable provider of waste solutions.

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