Author(s): Cleary J
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Abstract Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a popular tool used to evaluate the environmental performance of municipal solid waste (MSW) management systems. Although reviews of LCAs of MSW have been undertaken to assess the validity of the 'waste hierarchy,' a recent review of the goal, scope and results of LCAs of mixed-material MSW management systems has yet to be performed. This paper is a comparative analysis of 20 process-based LCAs of MSW published between 2002 and 2008 in a total of 11 English-language peer-reviewed journals. It quantifies the methodological transparency of the studies and the frequency of use of particular system boundaries, types of data sources, environmental impact categories, impact weightings, economic valuations, sensitivity analyses, and LCA computer models. Net energy use (NEU), global warming potential (GWP), and acidification potential (AP) values for various types of MSW management systems are also compared using statistical indicators. The reviewed LCAs differ substantially in their system boundaries. Half or more of the LCAs either do not mention or are unclear in whether or not life cycle emissions from energy inputs or capital equipment are included in the calculation of results. Only four impact categories are common to more than half of the reviewed LCAs. The human and ecological toxicity impact categories are much less common than global warming potential, acidification, and eutrophication. A financial life cycle costing is present in eight of the reviewed LCAs, while an economic valuation of the environmental impacts is observed in five. Explicit sensitivity analyses are present in 4/20 of the studies, although many more LCAs evaluate the effects of varying model parameters by increasing the number of waste management scenarios. There is no consensus on whether or not to use the marginal or average source of electricity in calculating environmental impacts. Eight out of the 20 do not mention this source while the remaining LCAs are evenly split between the marginal and average electricity source. One quarter of the reviewed LCAs supply weighted results for the overall environmental performance of MSW management scenarios. All but one of these concurred with the 'hierarchy of waste' that the environmental performance of landfilling is lower than that of all the other treatment methods, and that thermal treatments are inferior to recycling. The comparative analyses of the NEU, GWP and AP results are based on 37, 45, and 42 MSW management scenarios, respectively. As measures of statistical dispersion, the interquartile ranges of the NEU, GWP and AP values are lowest for the landfilling (AP, NEU) and thermal treatment (GWP) scenarios. The results of the statistical analysis of the NEU, AP and GWP values appear to indicate that thermal treatment scenarios have a better environmental performance than landfilling, while the results for mixed treatment scenarios are less obvious. A comparison of the relative environmental performances of MSW treatment scenario types within each study did not provide a clear confirmation or repudiation of the waste hierarchy. This paper concludes that many recently published LCAs do not ensure that the methodological assumptions are made clear to the reader. Lack of transparency makes the results difficult to interpret, and hampers meaningful comparisons between the LCA results. A convergence in the adoption of particular assumptions that are more representative of MSW management systems would facilitate the comparison of the results.
This article was published in Environ Int
and referenced in International Journal of Waste Resources