Million Tons

of solid waste that Covanta processes annually


Million Megawatt-Hours

of baseload electricity Covanta generates annually


Million Tons

of greenhouse gases avoided by Covanta’s facilities

The Path to Drawdown: Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy is the combustion of waste and conversion to electricity and usable heat in waste-to-energy plants. It reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing waste that ends up in landfills where it generates methane and replacing the use of coal- or gas-fired power plants and oil combustion. Its emissions saving potential is even greater if waste-to-energy plants are powered by renewable energy or low-emission energy sources.

While its GHG emissions are lower than fossil fuel combustion of methane-generating landfills, waste-to-energy processes carry with them the health and environmental risks associated with air pollution. Given this, it’s at best a transition solution - it can help us move away from fossil fuels in the near-term, but it’s not part of a clean energy future. Even when incineration facilities are cutting edge and equipped with pollution-reducing technologies, they’re not truly clean and toxin-free.

Waste-to-energy has been adopted in Europe, the United States, and Japan, and adoption is growing fast in China. Because of high capital entry cost, adoption will probably be limited to industrialized countries that can install high-cost pollution control technologies.

Project Drawdown envisions a mild increase in waste-to-energy in the path to a decarbonized future:

  • In 2020, waste-to-energy generated 142 TWh of electricity, or 0.54% of global electricity generation
  • In an ideal scenario in which other, cleaner waste management solutions are more widely adopted, waste-to-energy will have diminished in importance. By 2050 it will account for 0.3% of total global electricity generation, with 210 TWH of electricity generated. It will help avoid 3.0 gigatons of CO2e emissions.
  • In a less ideal future, waste-to-energy adoption will increase, accounting for 1.1% of total electricity generation in 2050, or 493 TWh of electricity


Covanta Holding Corporation (stock ticker: CVA) provides energy-from-waste and industrial waste management services. Headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey, they operate 41 waste-to-energy plants in North America, China, and Europe.

CVA's Role in Drawdown

Covanta develops and operates facilities that burn trash to produce electricity, recover metals from the waste stream for recycling, and provide other industrial waste management services.

They’ve processed more than 20 million tons of waste annually since 2016, and this waste was used to generate over 10 MWh of electricity each year. Covanta also recycles nearly 571,500 tons of metals, preventing them from ending up in landfills.

Most of their revenue came from selling trash disposal services and some from selling electricity produced by burning trash. The remainder of its revenue was from metal recycling, construction, and other services.

Covanta’s total revenue from these services have steadily grown over the last few years, with 2.3% CAGR between 2016 and 2020. When disaggregated by revenue source, their revenue from waste disposal service has increased by 3.53% annually and revenue from recycling service has increased even faster by 5.84% annually.

Most of this revenue came from long-term contracts with local governments or utility providers.

CVA: What We Like

All of Covanta’s energy-from-waste facilities generate their own clean energy to power their operations from the combustion of the waste inputs at their plants. Covanta is also in the process of installing new low NOx technology at three of their facilities

In addition, Covanta’s sustainability reporting is comprehensive and detailed. Complying with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, Global Reporting Initiative, and CDP (formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project), they have made the effort to make their carbon footprint, pollutant emissions, energy usage, and their methodology exceptionally transparent.

CVA: What We Want to See Improve

Set Emissions Reduction Targets

Covanta is in the process of setting a science-based target and implementation plan to decarbonize their operations in line with the level required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C. We would have liked them to have these targets sooner, given that waste-to-energy companies like Covanta are targets of controversy when it comes to debates on whether they reduce overall emissions. We urge Covanta to set these emissions reduction targets as soon as possible, to set them at ambitious levels, and to meet them proactively.

Eliminate Fossil Fuel Energy Use

We applaud Covanta for using their own energy-from-waste to power their facilities, but this doesn’t cover their entire energy use. In fact, their fossil fuel energy use has hovered around 3.8-4.2 million GJ since 2016. We want Covanta to eliminate fossil fuel use completely by switching to renewable sources as soon as possible.

Reduce Air Pollution

While there now seems to be conclusive evidence that waste-to-energy has lower GHG emissions than landfills and it’s therefore an acceptable transitionary strategy on the way to drawdown, it’s still a considerable source of air pollution. As a result of incineration, Covanta’s facilities emit mercury, cadmium, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and particulate matter to their surrounding areas, provoking sustained resistance from neighborhood and environmental activists. We acknowledge that Covanta is taking measures to reduce these air pollutants, but it’s clear that more is needed.

The Other Waste-to-Energy Companies in the Climate Index

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