Canada's Waste to Energy PR Success

The Canadian waste to energy industry has doubled in size in just five years, so how can a country convince the public on the merits of WtE so quickly?

In the face of significant skepticism to secure government approval for new facilities, the Canadian waste to energy industry has doubled in size in just five years. How can a country convince the public on the merits of WtE so quickly? Many countries could learn from Canada when it comes to effective communication.

by John Foden

The industry continues to face opposition from groups too quick to label waste to energy as 'controversial'. Yet the future is bright because going-forward vendors, regulators, and government will continue to apply some important "lessons learned".

Playing politics

Establishing a supportive relationship with a respected, independent politician is an essential early step. This 'star' candidate will have to speak positively about the project and the vendors, understand the political (electoral) opportunities and risks of the project, and be willing to stand up to an impetuous council, strident opponents, and a sensationalising media.

The industry doesn't have to enter into a formal alliance or declaration, though it must be prepared to match the political investment in the promotion of the project, engage appropriately in the debate with collaborative communications, ease the political burden by educating the public and media with fact-based evidence, and respect local political protocols.

With a political champion on-side, creating a favorable political majority is possible by aligning highlighting the technological, political and financial benefits of the project that best align with legislative and regulatory objectives.

In the case of waste to energy, this might explain how a new plant satisfies international, federal, provincial/state goals related to renewable energy, sustainable environmental practices, technological innovation and economic renewal. For the local audience, the alignment may come in the form of value-added job creation, increased property tax assessment and alternative revenue sources.

Offer More Than Money

A winning proposal needs to make an argument that establishes the merits of the project in a way that goes beyond costs and revenues. It should solve a long-term problem with a made-in-my-backyard solution. It should limit potential spillovers, ensuring problems created by the project effect only those who benefit from the proposal or have a direct connection to the project. Including sustainable attributes is key, particularly if it also demonstrates a long-term commitment to continuous investment in community renewal and quality of life.

Team Building

Americans, Canadians and Europeans hold distinctive world views, and therefore place different values on both the process and results of contractual negotiations.

It is therefore prudent to hire some homegrown talent who understand the local language and business culture, and who are also most familiar with the political geography of the community. Sharing long-term profits, or marketing secondary products collaboratively, such as heat, syngas, GHGs, etc., can improve the quality of any deal.

Setting unregulated standards, such as sustainability measures, elevated recycling rates, and on-site emissions reporting, can produce a win-win-win scenario.

One strong political leader may drive the project, but success depends on building a well-balanced and diversified project team. Getting the right talent means finding the right mix between policy-specific knowledge and other forms of mission-critical experience.

Close the Knowledge Gap

Proponents typically know more about proposed solutions than regulators, so the real challenge with any approvals process is closing the knowledge gap (between what is claimed and what can be controlled) in order to elevate the quality of the technical deliberations. This is so that regulators and proponents share a common and mutually acceptable level of understanding.

Following a 10-year process, Covanta finally won approval to build a tate-of-the-art waste to energy facility in the Durham Region in Ontario

Face-to-face meetings are a productive means of bridging the gap; sharing peer-reviewed studies will insert third party objectivity into the deliberations; highlighting the positive experiences in other jurisdictions can empower decision-makers.

A successful public affairs campaign will identify all key political stakeholders and understand their trigger points related to the key issues – what will bring comfort and what might scare them off. Recognising that all these individual decision makers play to different audiences, all communications and public affairs activities must be relentlessly clear, presenting key messages tailored specifically to select audiences that will ensure divergent groups come to the same conclusion within the context of their own interests.

Embrace Public Outreach

Project proponents must embrace an extensive public consultation process, from beginning to end, including church basement community meetings, cable television debates, council presentations, and regulatory briefings. There's no way to avoid these outreach exercises, nor should that be a goal. Proponents should seek out public events to engage the most active and articulate citizens - both friend and foe.

Outreach documents don't need to be too sophisticated or complicated - though accuracy, transparency and accountability are the priorities in any public affairs campaign involving controversial issues. Success is possible using fact-based briefing notes, 'frequently asked questions', and non-technical consultation material using jargon-free language.

Leverage Technology

A Web site is essential and social media are critical tools to push/pull messages for any public affairs campaign. Focus groups can be organised to test both messages and support within a host community while polling may validate public support and provide evidence that this 'controversial' project is actually an electoral winner.

However, despite the pervasiveness of social media, it is important to understand that it is still not treated as a legitimate measure of public input, a format given equal weight with traditional forms of outreach. Although social media provides direct access to public opinion, in too many jurisdictions it is not treated with the same validity as public meetings.

Permanent Opposition

The first step in managing opposition is to acknowledge that it is real, and a permanent feature of every public affairs campaign. However, the 'opponents' who fill the community hall during the early public meetings are not the same as the 'zealots' who will work against the project at all costs for the entire duration.

The former typically arrive with some skepticism and curiosity, and will see the merits of the project once presented with sensible, fact-based arguments. Their numbers will decline in direct proportion to the transparency of the outreach and information. The latter, which can be usually counted on one or two hands, come to the process with an ideological position and will not acknowledge the positive benefits of the project under any circumstances.

Need for a Local Presence

Relationships with local/ad hoc stakeholder groups and individuals must be nurtured, not assumed. The way to stand-up to criticism from jet-setting 'celebrity' environmentalists is to maintain an on-the-ground presence, close to the project, in order to remain accessible and available to any and all of the stakeholders. And because it is true that all politics is local, it's important to be sensitive to local political preferences, which means that project proponents must be creative and proactive with their media relations and stakeholder outreach to ensure that they are moving opinion despite attempts – even no matter how well-intentioned - to stifle it.

Be Patient with the Media

Serendipity is not a strategy and hoping for positive media coverage is the easiest way to lose control of the agenda. Good news is never good enough - selling the 'controversy' is too easy.

Quite often, the most well researched article will lie waiting for publication when there is a project opponent sowing baseless stories of fear. Circulating background information in the form of simple, honest, unbiased documentation is key. Editorial board meetings are a highly effective means of modifying media perspectives and attitudes. Negative coverage should be addressed promptly in the form of letters to the editor, opinion pieces and freelance articles. Persistence is key.

Long-Term Strategy

Faced with difficult public policy challenges, communities everywhere are searching for new, innovative solutions. However, 'new' can lead to 'controversy', which can result in an unnecessarily long and difficult road to approval and implementation.

Moreover, in seeking to produce a transparent and predictable result regardless of time or cost, public officials do not face the same expectations as private vendors, so the process seldom reflects a balance of interests. Whereas private companies want to economise on costs and reduce timelines, public officials seek to maximise citizen input and minimise any unnecessary externalities

But with a diligent strategy based on delivering genuine community benefits, gaining the support of a strong political champion and engaging a balanced, well-rounded team, project proponents can turn a skeptical public and critical media into supporters and champions, as well as winning over public opinion and acquiring regulatory approval.

The Canadian waste to energy industry has embraced these lessons, resulting in exponential growth over a reasonably modest timeframe. But the true measure of success may not actually be realised for a few more years as there are now dozens of communities across the country - with the widest possible range of demographics - that are currently investigating their waste management options, knowing the waste to energy is safe, sustainable, and affordable.

John Foden is executive director of the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition

Lessons Learned: Durham Region's Waste to Energy Plant

After an extensive 10-year process, Durham Region in Ontario finally won approval to build a new, state-of-the-art EfW plant. The project is highly instructive; it involved hundreds of public meetings, a prohibition on "lobbying" (for proponents, though not between project opponents and council) and input from so-called experts flown in to testify against the project.

In the end, determined political leadership and transparent decision-making won the day. Moreover, municipal staff derived community support by including architectural enhancements in the contract; taxpayer value was further enhanced with a cost of maintenance provision and a clause to protect a prescribed residual value of the facility.

Although built on a greenfield site, regulatory officials have indicated that going forward they would like to see other EFW projects built closer to commercial and institutional uses. They began to see the technology as part of the public health infrastructure, not unlike a water treatment plant. The Durham York Energy Centre is now under construction and headed towards operations in Q4 2014.

Canada's EfW Coalition

The Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition (CEFWC) is an organisation dedicated to promoting the benefits of waste to energy in the context of an integrated waste management hierarchy (IWMH). It presents the science behind the solution, avoiding any commercial messages. And because it is both vendor and technology neutral, it has served as an objective, trusted resource for policy makers, regulators, and municipal officials. The work of the CEFWC has been particularly effective as a means of communicating strong, focused messages to the public and the media in the face of lobbying bans and other political idiosyncrasies imposed by local councils.

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