Sunday, July 14, 2024

The octopus in the room

If you’re facing a tough challenge, it can be a good idea to consult an expert.
Take, for example, the challenge of convincing a community to build a multi-million-dollar garbage incinerator in its midst. It would be a particularly difficult challenge if your argument hung on the need to import 395,000 tons of garbage in order to dispose of your local garbage burden of just 5,000 tons. It would get even worse if the community insisted on using recycling and composting to reduce local garbage production even further to under 2,000 tons.
Enter John Foden. He wrote the book on how to build community acceptance of a garbage incinerator. Foden is the Executive Director of the Canadian Energy from Waste Coalition (CEFWC), an industry lobby group working for the promotion and adoption of energy-from-waste technology. According to a 2010 article in the magazine Watershed Sentinal, the “primary funder” of the CEFWC was a company called Covanta, often called “the octopus” as the world’s largest owner of waste-to-energy facilities.
In 2014, Foden published an article in the waste industry trade magazine Waste Advantage summarizing the key ingredients of a successful advocacy campaign, apparently informed by the experience of getting a Covanta facility built in Durham York region of Ontario. Here are a few excerpts.
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.
Winning over public opinion for new or controversial projects can be a difficult, time consuming and expensive assignment. But it’s not impossible.
Establishing a 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 sensationalizing media.

With a political champion on your side, creating a favorable political majority is possible by highlighting the technological, political and financial benefits of the project that best align with legislative and regulatory objectives. In the case of EfW [energy from waste], 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.
The goal of any advocacy campaign is to provide political “cover” for a positive decision by maintaining an appropriate presence throughout the entire process—from idea origination to facility construction. Proponents must be a part of the process, informing policy development, procurement, leading (or at least cooperating) in the approvals phase, and then sharing the responsibility of educating the public and media once the project is under construction and headed towards operations. Showing up when an RFP [request for proposal] is issued is almost always too late for any legitimate vendor.
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 as a means of engaging the most active and articulate citizens—both friends and foes, as well as those with an open mind.
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 in 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 projects 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.

According to Wikipedia, back in 2006, when Pontiac’s warden was a councillor in Toronto arguing for the adoption of an incinerator to burn the city’s garbage, John Foden was an advisor on her campaign to get her elected mayor. Clearly, our warden could have had access to some of the best advice in the industry on how to get community buy-in for a garbage incinerator. Whether she took advantage of it is anybody’s guess.

Charles Dickson


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