Carbon and life cycle implications of thermal recovery from the organic fractions of municipal waste

Burnley, Stephen; Phillips, Rhiannon and Coleman, Terry (2012). Carbon and life cycle implications of thermal recovery from the organic fractions of municipal waste. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 17(8) pp. 1015–1027.



Purpose. The aim of this research was to determine the optimum way of recovering energy from the biodegradable fractions of municipal waste. A part-life cycle study was carried out on the following wastes; paper, food waste, garden waste, wood, non-recyclable mixed municipal waste and refuse derived fuel. The energy recovery processes considered were incineration, gasification, combustion in dedicated plant, anaerobic digestion and combustion in a cement kiln.

Methods. The LCA was carried out using WRATE, an LCA tool designed specifically for waste management studies. Additional information on waste composition, waste collection and the performance of the energy recovery processes was obtained from a number of UK-based sources. The results take account of the energy displaced by the waste to energy processes and also the benefits obtained by the associated recycling of digestates, metals and aggregates as appropriate.

Results and discussion. For all the waste types considered the maximum benefits in terms of climate change and non-renewable resource depletion would be achieved by using the waste in a cement kiln as a substitute fuel for coal. When considering the impacts in terms of human toxicity, aquatic ecotoxicity, acidification and eutrophication, direct combustion with energy recovery was the best option. The results were found to be highly sensitive to the efficiency of the energy recovery process and the conventional fuel displaced by the recovered energy.

Conclusions and recommendations. This study has demonstrated that LCA can be used to determine the benefits and burdens associated with recovering energy from municipal waste fractions. However, the findings were restricted by the lack of reliable data on the performance of waste gasification and anaerobic digestion systems and on the burdens arising from collecting the wastes. It is recommended that further work is carried out to address these data gaps.

Viewing alternatives


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions