Environmental Assessment of Municipal Waste Management Scenarios: Part II Detailed Life Cycle Assessments


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The European Commission’s Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste outlines why life cycle thinking is essential in the move towards more sustainable consumption and production. The importance of life cycle thinking is further highlighted in the Commission’s complimentary Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, in its Integrated Product Policy, as well as in the proposed revisions to the European Waste Framework Directive and the up-coming Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan.

All the stages associated with a product’s life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, manufacture, use, recycling operations, as well as the ultimate disposal of waste contribute to pressures on the environment and the consumption of resources. Differences amongst product options can occur at different stages in each life cycle, as well as between different impact categories. Over their life cycles, products, both goods and services, contribute to climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, photooxidant formation (smog), eutrophication, acidification, carcinogenic effects, the depletion of resources including land use, and noise, among others. To consider the full life cycle of products, hence quantify the impacts, support which product option is preferable, and identify where improvements might be made, requires life cycle thinking.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a widely used and internationally standardized (ISO14040 ff)1 methodology that helps to quantitatively support life cycle thinking. LCA compliments many regulatory- and more site- or process-oriented risk and impact assessments. In the context of waste management, the focus of this report, questions include whether it is better to e.g. incinerate plastics, paper, and biodegradable wastes to generate heat and electricity, or whether it is preferable to e.g. recycle and compost. Answering these and similar questions requires consideration of the emissions and resources consumed that are associated with, for example, the upstream activities of providing virgin materials versus recycling them, or the burdens attributable to different fuels that may be replaced by energy generated from waste.

In 2004, following its international workshop and conference on life cycle assessment and waste management2, the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) launched a series of regional pilot case studies3 in collaboration with representatives of the European Union’s new member states, acceding countries, and associated countries. The representatives selected, and provided, statistical data for nine waste management regions4. The life cycle assessments took into account the situation around 2003 in each region and example management scenarios that achieve Directive compliance and beyond. The assessments focused on some of the key emissions, wastes generated, and resources consumed. These initial assessments helped demonstrate the many trade-offs, and benefits, that are associated with different waste management options.

This report, based on a study carried out on behalf of the JRC by 2.-0 LCA Consultants5, considers in further detail the waste management options for the island nation of Malta and the central European city of Krakow, Poland. The life cycle assessments use more robust data relative to the first demonstration studies, consider the potential for use of cutting-edge methodologies, and take into account waste management costs.

The resultant life cycle impact indicators provide a basis to compare the emissions and resources consumed attributable to each waste management option in terms of their contributions to e.g. different environment and human health burdens. One of the methods furthermore highlights how some of the trade-offs between environment, health, and the waste management costs might be partially considered in a single life cycle based cost-benefit framework, as a support to other decision-making information. At the same time, work is still ongoing in the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment to provide a European Reference Life Cycle Data System (ELCD) and supporting Technical Guidance Documents6. The approaches and data presented in this report are therefore of an exploratory/demonstration nature and were conducted from a research perspective.

Life cycle thinking and related methodologies, such as life cycle assessment, are now playing an ever-increasing role in supporting the decisions of consumers, suppliers, business, and governments. These detailed life cycle assessments for Malta and Krakow helped more comprehensively quantify some of the environmental advantages of compliance with EU Directives for municipal waste management, particularly in the context of climate change. The assessments equally quantified some of the likely benefits, and trade-offs, at different scales of public administration; local, national, European, and global. Further reductions in waste management costs, at the same time reducing environmental burdens, can be achieved by going beyond just compliance.

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