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Achieving Sustainability Through Action and Accountability

Achieving Sustainability Through Action and Accountability

Paul Stauder

Paul Stauder

Paul Stauder is president of Covanta Environmental Solutions, leading the management and growth of this subsidiary that provides companies with comprehensive environmental services.

Sustainability is often described as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is the capacity to endure, to indefinitely support the co-existence between Earth’s ecosystems and humanity’s civilizations through three key pillars: social equity, environmental health and economic vitality. These areas of focus—commonly referred to as people, planet and prosperity—are deeply interconnected when it comes to putting sustainable thinking into sustainable action, and with the world’s climate crisis worsening by the day, there has never been a more pivotal time to act. But how do you prioritize these pillars; where do you start? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to supporting elements of people, planet and prosperity within your own business or community, there are some best practices that many business leaders have already incorporated into the core of what they do.

1. Coordinating Efforts

Successfully integrating the three pillars of sustainability into any organization requires coordinated efforts from the top down. Whether they come from company c-suiters, legislators, community officials or institutional heads and educators, having committed leadership with a clear, strategic direction can make all the difference. Why?

        • It establishes importance.
          Wherever the head moves, the body will follow. It is far easier to emphasize the serious and swift need for change on a large scale when it comes from those in charge.

        • It drives integration.
          Those who are deeply involved with ‘the big picture’ of an organization’s structure and goals can work sustainability initiatives into those frameworks, helping ensure that the secondary goals of sustainability are met alongside the entity’s primary mission without interference or redundancy to established systems.

        • It promotes collaboration.
          Working with lawmakers, commercial peers and governing bodies becomes more accessible and efficient when leaders align goals with other leaders and enter into a mutually beneficial relationship.


2. Utilizing Science via the Waste Hierarchy

From the procurement of materials all the way to their final disposition, a sizable portion of sustainability is intertwined with materials management. As a result, sustainability (or lack thereof) pervades the entire value chain, from the methane emissions caused by oil and gas extraction, to the availability of raw materials that make up the plastics and metals so critical to the technological needs of our future low-carbon economy, to the climate and land impacts of landfilling.

Considering the relationships with social infrastructure, the environment, resources and finances that materials management has, utilizing the waste hierarchy to address risks, support timely decision-making and guide operations is a valuable tool in driving sustainability.

Waste Hierarchy-1

      • At the top of the hierarchy is waste reduction.
        This is the only form of waste and materials management that has no directly negative environmental impacts.

      • Reuse and recycling are the next best options.
        They return materials back into the economy, typically providing for significant savings of energy inputs and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions relative to generating new materials from virgin inputs.

      • What cannot be reused or recycled, can be recovered.
        “Recovery” involves putting these post-recycled materials through a thermal process—such as
        Waste-to-Energy, anaerobic digestion or gasification—where energy is generated from combustion and returned to the power grid, and metals are recovered for recycling and other inputs. This offers a preferred, more sustainable alternative to landfilling, where those materials are lost and their emissions are unregulated.

3. Capitalizing on Sustainable Benefits

Part of ensuring that sustainable change sticks, is making sure that its benefits are not only evident in the short- and long-term, but that they are able to be utilized to their fullest extent. Some benefits attributed to sustainable waste management that businesses and communities can capitalize on include:
      • Social Benefits
            • Space Allocation
              Without sustainable waste solutions, the space allocated to landfills inexorably expands. Additionally, it takes up and devalues land that otherwise would be used for more productive purposes, including housing, parks or other greenspaces and businesses.

            • Recycling Promotion
              Communities with sustainable solutions partners have a higher recycling rate than the national average—for example, many regions with Waste-to-Energy facilities have rates reaching over 50%. Additionally, these areas are able to treat and reuse water, recycle disposed of metals and recover energy for local use.

      • Environmental Benefits
            • Resource Preservation
              In the United States, Waste-to-Energy enables the annual recycling of more than 700,000 tons of metal and generates enough electricity to power 2.3 million homes, whereas liquid waste management can treat and reuse millions of gallons of water, and de-packaging services can reuse tons of plastics and oils.

            • Greenhouse Gas Diversion
              Landfilling is a leading source of uncontrolled methane emissions, a prominent greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 and exacerbates climate change. Reducing what heads there through sustainable solutions can offset millions of tons of those pollutants every year.

            • Habitat Conservation
              Sustainable waste solutions protect animal and human health by stopping waste that is hazardous to plant and animal health, such as electronic, universal or plastic waste from ever polluting their ecosystems or communities.

            • Water and Soil Protection
              The use of water treatment and beneficial reuse processes for the management of unwanted liquids eliminates the additional leachate contamination that seeps from landfills into surrounding areas. This is especially true for hazardous wastes

      • Economic Benefits
            • Risk Reduction
              Responsibility for all waste types sent to a landfill extends indefinitely, whether as a legal matter or in the court of public opinion. When it’s safely destroyed through secure destruction services, liability is no longer an issue.

            • Operations Optimization
              Outputs can be used as inputs in place of virgin resources—that is, byproducts of a process can be used as components in other areas to keep the system moving. Additionally, they can be recovered, processed and sold to other manufacturers and/or vendors. This is something that can often be determined through waste stream audit and consulting services.

            • Brand Elevation
              Increasingly, customers prefer buying products that have been sustainably produced. Between 2013 and 2018, packaged goods marketed as sustainable made up 50% of the overall growth in the consumer packaged goods space. Companies that meet these demands see better returns while improving their image.

            • Value Escalation
              Sustainability will escalate the value of a business by supporting it’s top- and bottom-lines. A 2019 survey led by Hotwire and reported by Business Insider found that 47% of internet users worldwide had ditched products and services from a brand that violated their personal values. Protecting the environment topped that list of values. Additionally, research shows that having an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) program is associated with better financial performances.


4. Upholding Responsibility

Every choice that moves the world toward greater sustainability has rippling effects, so it’s important to openly discuss them with the parties who’ll be involved, especially in relation to waste management. Transparent planning is key for everything that leads up to and follows any change to operations. In the end, it’s pivotal that sustainable waste management is performed responsibly, considerately and benefits as many people as possible for it to truly “work”. Organizations must:
      • Strive for Operational Excellence
        Often times this comes down to delivering on what was promised. Businesses can supplement that by providing widespread transparency and communication; strict regulations, policies, monitoring and compliance standards; and implementing a continuous improvement mindset throughout their organization.

      • Incorporate Social Integration
        To better understand and accommodate those who will be impacted by sustainable change, businesses pushing that change must become fully integrated into the communities and the markets that surround them. This is achievable through financial support, outreach and volunteerism, education, stewardship and any involvement that may fall under “good neighbor” practices and policies.

      • Foster Collaborative Governance
        To ensure responsible sustainability has concrete, lasting results, working with governments and other businesses to establish fitting legislation goes a long way. These policies should incentivize sustainable practices and technologies; hold all of society’s groups accountable for their waste, carbon footprints and overall environmental impacts; and secure sustainable infrastructure that supports environmental justice, health and safety.

Putting sustainable thinking into sustainable action can be a complex and daunting challenge, but it’s a task many businesses have already excelled in, and one your organization can take on too. Through sustainable waste management and some accompanying elements that help support social equity, environmental health and economic vitality, business leaders can, and have shown they can, make lasting, positive environmental impacts.

The time is now—we must coordinate our sustainability efforts through leadership and strategic thinking, utilize science via the waste hierarchy in our everyday operations, capitalize on the benefits of those efforts and ensure the entire process is handled responsibly and conscientiously.

We know this is far too big a task for any one company to face alone, but together we can better ourselves, better each other, and better those we serve for the sake of the people we care about, the planet we share and the future that is not yet lost. It’s why we must step up and lead this movement as Protectors of Tomorrow.

For more on how business leaders are optimizing their operations while safeguarding the environment through sustainable waste management, read our article: Turning Sustainability Risk into Opportunity.

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