IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

10.4.4 Biological treatment including composting, anaerobic digestion, and MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment)

Many developed and developing countries practise composting and anaerobic digestion of mixed waste or biodegradable waste fractions (kitchen or restaurant wastes, garden waste, sewage sludge). Both processes are best applied to source-separated waste fractions: anaerobic digestion is particularly appropriate for wet wastes, while composting is often appropriate for drier feedstocks. Composting decomposes waste aerobically into CO2, water and a humic fraction; some carbon storage also occurs in the residual compost (see references on Figure 10.1). Composting can be sustainable at reasonable cost in developing countries; however, choosing more labour-intensive processes over highly mechanized technology at large scale is typically more appropriate and sustainable; Hoornweg et al. (1999) give examples from India and other countries. Depending on compost quality, there are many potential applications for compost in agriculture, horticulture, soil stabilization and soil improvement (increased organic matter, higher water-holding capacity) (Cointreau, 2001). However, CH4 and N2O can both be formed during composting by poor management and the initiation of semi-aerobic (N2O) or anaerobic (CH4) conditions; recent studies also indicate potential production of CH4 and N2O in well-managed systems (Hobson et al., 2005).

Anaerobic digestion produces biogas (CH4 + CO2) and biosolids. In particular, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France have implemented anaerobic digestion systems for waste processing, with the resulting biogas used for process heating, onsite electrical generation and other uses. Minor quantities of CH4 can be vented from digesters during start-ups, shutdowns and malfunctions. However, the GHG emissions from controlled biological treatment are small in comparison to uncontrolled CH4 emissions from landfills without gas recovery (e.g. Petersen et al. 1998; Hellebrand 1998; Vesterinen 1996; Beck-Friis, 2001; Detzel et al. 2003). The advantages of biological treatment over landfilling are reduced volume and more rapid waste stabilization. Depending on quality, the residual solids can be recycled as fertilizer or soil amendments, used as a CH4-oxidizing biocovers on landfills (Barlaz et al., 2004; Huber-Humer, 2004), or landfilled at reduced volumes with lower CH4 emissions.

Mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste is now being widely implemented in Germany, Austria, Italy and other EU countries. In 2004, there were 15 facilities in Austria, 60 in Germany and more than 90 in Italy; the total throughput was approximately 13 million tonnes with larger plants having a capacity of 600–1300 tonnes/day (Diaz et al., 2006). Mixed waste is subjected to a series of mechanical and biological operations to reduce volume and achieve partial stabilization of the organic carbon. Typically, mechanical operations (sorting, shredding, crushing) first produce a series of waste fractions for recycling or for subsequent treatment (including combustion or secondary biological processes). The biological steps consist of either aerobic composting or anaerobic digestion. Composting can occur either in open windrows or in closed buildings with gas collection and treatment. In-vessel anaerobic digestion of selected organic fractions produces biogas for energy use. Compost products and digestion residuals can have potential horticultural or agricultural applications; some MBT residuals are landfilled, or soil-like residuals can be used as landfill cover. Under landfill conditions, residual materials retain some potential for CH4 generation (Bockreis and Steinberg, 2005). Reductions of as much as 40–60% of the original organic carbon are possible with MBT (Kaartinen, 2004). Compared with landfilling, MBT can theoretically reduce CH4 generation by as much as 90% (Kuehle-Weidemeier and Doedens, 2003). In practice, reductions are smaller and dependent on the specific MBT processes employed (see Binner, 2002).