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

10.6 Long-term considerations and sustainable development

10.6.1 Municipal solid waste management

GHG emissions from waste can be effectively mitigated by current technologies. Many existing technologies are also cost effective; for example, landfill gas recovery for energy use can be profitable in many developed countries. However, in developing countries, a major barrier to the diffusion of technologies is lack of capital – thus the CDM, which is increasingly being implemented for landfill gas recovery projects, provides a major incentive for both improved waste management and GHG emission reductions. For the long term, more profound changes in waste management strategy are expected in both developed and developing countries, including more emphasis on waste minimization, recycling, re-use and energy recovery. Huhtala (1997) studied optimal recycling rates for municipal solid waste using a model that included recycling costs and consumer preferences; results suggested that a recycling rate of 50% was achievable, economically justified and environmentally preferable. This rate has already been achieved in many countries for the more valuable waste fractions such as metals and paper (OECD, 2002b).

Decisions for alternative waste management strategies are often made locally; however, there are also regional drivers based on national regulatory and policy decisions. Selected waste management options also determine GHG mitigation options. For the many countries which continue to rely on landfilling, increased utilization of landfill CH4 can provide a cost-effective mitigation strategy. The combination of gas utilization for energy with biocover landfill cover designs to increase CH4 oxidation can largely mitigate site-specific CH4 emissions (Huber-Humer, 2004; Barlaz et al., 2004). These technologies are simple (‘low technology’) and can be readily deployed at any site. Moreover, R&D to improve gas-collection efficiency, design biogas engines and turbines with higher efficiency, and develop more cost-effective gas purification technologies are underway. These improvements will be largely incremental but will increase options, decrease costs, and remove existing barriers for expanded applications of these technologies.

Advances in waste-to-energy have benefited from general advances in biomass combustion; thus the more advanced technologies such as fluidized bed combustion with emissions control can provide significant future mitigation potential for the waste sector. When the fossil fuel offset is also taken into account, the positive impact on GHG reduction can be even greater (e.g., Lohiniva et al. 2002; Pipatti and Savolainen 1996; Consonni et al. 2005). High cost, however, is a major barrier to the increased implementation of waste-to-energy. Incineration has often proven to be unsustainable in developing countries – thus thermal processes are expected to be primarily (but not exclusively) deployed in developed countries. Advanced combustion technologies are expected to become more competitive as energy prices increase and renewable energy sources gain larger market share.

Anaerobic digestion as part of MBT, or as a stand-alone process for either wastewater or selected wastes (high moisture), is expected to continue in the future as part of the mix of mature waste management technologies. In general, anaerobic digestion technologies incur lower capital costs than incineration; however, in terms of national GHG mitigation potential and energy offsets, their potential is more limited than landfill CH4 recovery and incineration. When compared to composting, anaerobic digestion has advantages with respect to energy benefits (biogas), reduced process times and reduced volume of residuals; however, as applied in developed countries, it typically incurs higher capital costs. Projects where mixed municipal waste was anaerobically digested (e.g., the Valorga project) have been largely discontinued in favour of projects using specific biodegradable fractions such as food waste. In some developing countries such as China and India, small-scale digestion of biowaste streams with CH4 recovery and use has been successfully deployed for decades as an inexpensive local waste-to-energy strategy – many other countries could also benefit from similar small-scale projects. For both as a primary wastewater treatment process or for secondary treatment of sludges from aerobic processes, anaerobic digestion under higher temperature using thermophilic regimes or two-stage processes can provide shorter retention times with higher rates of biogas production.

Regarding the future of up-front recycling and separation technologies, it is expected that wider implementation of incrementally-improving technologies will provide more rigorous process control for recycled waste streams transported to secondary markets or secondary processes, including paper and aluminium recycling, composting and incineration. If analysed within an LCA perspective, waste can be considered a resource, and these improvements should result in more advantageous material and energy balances for both individual components and urban waste streams as a whole. For developing countries, provided sufficient measures are in place to protect workers and the local environment, more labour-intensive recycling practices can be introduced and sustained to conserve materials, gain energy benefits and reduce GHG emissions. In general, existing studies on the mitigation potential for recycling yield variable results because of the differing assumptions and methodologies applied; however, recent studies (i.e., Myllymaa et al., 2005) are beginning to quantitatively examine the environmental benefits of alternative waste strategies, including recycling.