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Modular life cycle assessment of municipal solid waste management

Haupt, M., Kägi, T., Hellweg, S.
Waste management 2018 v.79 pp. 815-827
cardboard, case studies, databases, energy efficiency, environmental impact, environmental performance, glass, life cycle assessment, management systems, mass flow, material flow analysis, municipal solid waste, paper, paper recycling, politics, primary productivity, waste incineration, Switzerland
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is commonly applied to examine the environmental performance of waste management systems. The system boundaries are, however, often limited to either one tonne of material or to specific waste treatments and are, therefore, lacking a systems perspective. Here, a framework is proposed to assess complete waste management systems based on actual waste flows, assessed with a detailed material flow analysis (MFA) in a modular MFA/LCA approach. The transformation of the MFA into a product-process-matrix facilitates a direct link between MFA and LCA, therefore allowing for the assessment of variations in flows. To allow for an up-to-date and geographically specific assessment, 190 LCA modules were set up based on primary industrial data and the ecoinvent database. The LCA modules show where there have been improvements in different recycling processes over the past years (e.g. for paper recycling) and highlight that, from an environmental perspective, closed-loop recycling is not always preferable to open-loop recycling. In a case study, the Swiss municipal solid waste management system, of which there is already a detailed MFA, was modeled using the new LCA modules and applying the modular MFA/LCA approach. Five different mass flow distribution scenarios for the Swiss municipal solid waste management system were assessed to show the environmental impact of political measures and to test the sensitivity of the results to key parameters. The results of the case study highlight the importance of the dominant fractions in the overall environmental impacts assessment; while the metal fraction has the highest impact on a per kilogram basis, paper, cardboard, glass and mixed municipal solid waste were found to dominate the environmental impacts of the Swiss waste management system due to their mass. The scenarios also highlight the importance of the energy efficiency of municipal solid waste incineration plants and the credits from material substitution as key variables. In countries with advanced waste management systems such as Switzerland, there is limited improvement potential with further increases in recycling rates. In these cases, the focus of political measures should be laid on (i) the utilization of secondary materials in applications where they replace high-impact primary production, and (ii) an increased recovery of energy in waste-to-energy plants.