Sustainable Waste Management: Learning from Life Cycle Assessments
Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a tool used by international organizations, including the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and on a national basis by the U.S. EPA, to assess the environmental impacts of a product or process from cradle to grave, or from the extraction of raw materials to final disposition at the end of life. Applied to waste management, LCA facilitates an assessment of the environmental impacts and trade-offs of different management approaches; this assessment is a useful decision-making tool for communities, governments and industry as they consider sustainable waste management. All end-of-life processes have impacts, but an LCA allows for effective comparisons. Well executed LCAs often will validate, or “ground-truth,” their results against measured data, such as the proportion of an EfW facility’s CO2 emissions that are from biogenic sources or an EfW facility’s net electrical output.
Because LCA looks far beyond an inventory at a single facility, it allows us to quantify the positive and negative impacts of not only the energy recovery process itself, but also the benefits that accrue from avoiding landfill disposal, recovering metals for recycling and displacing grid-connecting electrical generation.