Derek Veenhof is executive vice president and chief operating officer, leading the management and growth of the company’s North American business.
Beware the Ides of March. An apt Shakespearean warning that seems quite applicable to the pandemic-spurred office closings and community lockdowns that swept through North America just over a year ago. Since then, work, school and every other facet of our day-to-day lives has become entrenched in the disruption, resulting in significant and possibly long-lasting implications to our futures. But you already knew that. What you may not have known, is that this extends into the waste industry as well—a market whose role in that future is bigger than many realize.
You may remember our industry making national headlines, as waste volumes shifted from the commercial to residential sector. Municipalities nationwide struggled with the additional waste generated at home that resulted from the unforeseen changes to the economy and our individual lifestyles. Although those challenges were felt, I believe they gave, and continue to give, us a unique opportunity—one to shine light on the true value of local essential infrastructure, services and the jobs our industry provides. An opportunity to prioritize investment in sustainable waste management in order to bolster and support our local economies for the long term.
Early in the pandemic, there was a rush to stockpile the basic requirements—food, water, even toilet paper flew off the shelves as if there would never be another square to spare. Despite such surprises, our farmers and food supply chain stepped up to the challenge and delivered. What once seemed like a critical shortage of supplies (seriously, where did all of that toilet paper really go?) became nothing more than an odd memory as things settled out.
That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a small snapshot of what local scarcity looks like, and more importantly, it showed us that we have taken essential services for granted as a society. This wake-up call has given us the chance to properly value these services and invest in our long-term needs, with a careful eye toward sustainable local practices as a high-reward opportunity in the future.
Sustainable practices (the focus on three Ps of people, planet, and prosperity) in the context of a pandemic and a global climate crisis, are clearly more important than ever. And COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of community – we are not in this alone. So, as we emerge, I believe we should focus our energy on prioritizing local investment and work outward from a strong base.
Communities need people to be productive, and productivity is an opportunity for prosperity – economic, social and general well-being. As we sadly see parts of the economy being devastated by forces outside of our control, the communities in which we live still have demands for essential services, such as sustainable waste management. Thanks to the tireless efforts of waste and recycling workers, our industry has remained resilient, and our communities remain clean and safe for us to live in. While our economy has suffered from a pandemic, waste at the curb is not magically going away any time soon.
What I have always loved about Covanta’s Waste-to-Energy business is its contribution to local skilled jobs. People are afforded an opportunity to work together in a manner in which we bring value to what is otherwise “wasted”. Our sophisticated industrial facilities safely incinerate household wastes and recover resources (energy and recyclable metals that otherwise wouldn’t be captured) to make goods of immediate value and use. This value is not trivial, but is seldom properly valued in the local, regional or national context.
According to a recent study done by researchers at the University of Buffalo, our Niagara Falls, N.Y., facility alone supports more than $120 million in economic output in the local economy every year. For every job at the facility, another four were supported elsewhere in the state.
That is not insignificant. These facilities are economic engines for people, with excellent wages, salaries and benefits. They also help our communities, generating significant taxes, host fees and revenues through the procurement of local goods and services. For Covanta’s facilities, which process more than 21 million tons of waste annually, that equates to approximately $3.2 billion of economic value generated in the communities we serve.
In addition to the economic benefits, Waste-to-Energy is widely recognized as a technology that helps mitigate climate change. In fact, it is the only form of energy generation that reduces greenhouse gases. This is because it avoids using methane from landfills, offsetting emissions from fossil fuel electrical production and recovering metals for recycling.
The waste we generate must go somewhere and be managed responsibly. For too long, our society has taken this reality for granted and has not cared what happens to our waste after leaving it at the curb. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that it’s not always “business as usual,” and we can no longer afford to take this local infrastructure, these services and the tangible value they provide to communities for granted. There’s too much at stake and too much left to gain to ignore.
Let’s use this wake-up call to make meaningful change and investments in sustainable local infrastructure that will safeguard our future and ensure our communities have the opportunity to prosper.