At Covanta, data health improves the business and the planet

By Kyle Brown

It’s time we had a talk about landfills 

At Talend, we tend to describe poorly organized, unhealthy data as “digital landfills.” But we don’t often talk about actual landfills. That’s right, the ones filled with trash.

As anyone watching real estate prices will know, land is a finite resource. It’s crazy to think that we’re still dedicating land to storing our garbage, where it will sit releasing pollutants and greenhouse gases for decades to come. Plus, when we send trash to a landfill, valuable resources literally go to waste. In the United States alone 7.5 million tons of recoverable metal go to landfill every year.

What if there was another way to deal with our trash? What if someone could sort it, process it, and extract value from it?

As it happens, Covanta is doing just that to provide innovative energy and waste solutions across North America and Europe.

Transforming waste to energy and raw materials

“Covanta is a wonderful company,” says Charles Link, Covanta’s Senior Director of Data and Analytics. “It’s really an interesting company, if you take time to understand what we’re really doing. We’re not just burning garbage.”

The process is called waste to energy (WtE), or sometimes energy from waste (EfW). Covanta’s modern facilities generate enough electricity to continuously power a million homes each year — and that’s only one aspect of the business. Covanta also takes sophisticated steps to recover recyclable metals from the ash, which keeps them out of the waste stream.

“Sometimes the only way you’re going to break it down is at 2000° Fahrenheit for a couple hours, because there are things you just can't get it out of the stream otherwise. For example, gold doesn’t come off of circuit boards naturally, but we have the technology to do it," explains Link. “We have the ability to take material out of the ash stream down to the six-micron level — that’s one-tenth the width of a human hair. We’re keeping that waste out of the landfills.”

Covanta recycles 600,000 tons of metal trash into recyclable treasure each year. Since mining new metals is carbon-intensive and disruptive to the environment, Covanta says their recycling program currently saves 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, or the equivalent of taking about 113,000 cars off the road.

In total, Covanta says its facilities offset 21 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. That’s because waste-to-energy reduces the amount of fossil fuels burned for energy production and offsets the greenhouse gases that landfill would have released.

“I am really proud of what Covanta does.  Covanta is committed to being part of the solution to improving the environment.” Link says. “My kids say, ‘what you’re doing is so cool!’”

Reduce, reuse, recycle… reimagine IT

“Even before I got here,” recalls Link, “Covanta was making a transition from being just a part of a large conglomerate many years ago to being a growth opportunity — because everything environmental matters. We have a responsibility and a role in helping to create the circular economy.”

For Covanta, creating a circular economy involves diverting recyclables, capturing energy from the waste stream, and finding applications for the residue: from recovering metal for recycling to industrial applications for the remaining ash.

“Converting waste into energy and recyclable materials is a complex business, and the equipment takes a lot of maintenance — that's actually where the majority of our costs are incurred. Our objective is to reduce those costs as much as possible to help drive our growth. To do so, we need to have a lot more insight into what's going on."

Link continues, "Part of that was recasting what IT looks like in their role, from being order-takers to being strategic, value-add partners to the business, more consultative.”

Covanta relies on data to meet business goals

Link reveals that when he approaches a data project, it’s never just a data project — it’s always about the business result. “Where we're driving with the data is to understand the whole ecosystem of what's going on in these facilities: everything from the supply of the garbage through the mining of the ash for recyclables.

Data helps us understand how to optimally run our business so that we have three things: first, the safety of our workers, second, the growth of our company, and third, making sure we’re being good environmental partners — not only from our emissions, but also showing that we are literally taking waste out of the landfills.”

Link says that balancing these priorities is “wildly complicated,” which is why he's made implementing artificial intelligence his biggest strategic focus.

“The friction areas,” he says, “used to be that we couldn't even get the data into a point of usability. Fortunately, Talend provides a series of products that have made that go away, so we can focus on the real problem. Today, the biggest friction area is uncovering new sources of information.”

Why Talend? Understanding data health

The Covanta Data Hub, built on Talend Data Fabric, ensures that data is easy to find and ready to use across the organization. “There is now a shared understanding across operations and strategy, business and IT, of what our data means,” explains Link. “Now we trust the quality of the data we can use to operate our business.”

Link particularly appreciates that while healthy data keeps Covanta operating smoothly, data health requirements vary in different parts of the business. 

“If you were to poll a group right now and say, ‘Do you feel you're healthy, overall?,’ you're going to have probably most people raise their hands. Yet some of them are going to be marathon runners and some of them are going to be couch potatoes. Now, if you said ‘unhealthy,’ that gives you a pretty good picture. You don't want ‘unhealthy,’ but ‘healthy’ may be a matter of perspective: ‘healthy for what?’”

By assessing data health, Covanta’s approach ensures that their data is suitable to become information and actionable intelligence that supports business objectives instead of meeting one-size-fits-all quality standards.

“And that is critical,” Link tells us, “because the degree of what we might consider ‘health’ matters. The data has to be pristine, pure, and perfect when we do energy trading. However, if I'm simply doing statistical analysis of breakage points, it doesn't have to be perfect. Being able to delineate how healthy our data is, and our dimensions of health, which we do with Talend Data Inventory, is critical.”