To compost or not to compost: Carbon and energy footprints of biodegradable materials' waste treatment

B. G. Hermann, L. Debeer, B. De Wilde, K. Blok, M. K. Patel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

125 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Many life cycle assessments of bio-based and biodegradable materials neglect the post-consumer waste treatment phase because of a lack of consistent data, even though this stage of the life cycle may strongly influence the conclusions. The aim of this paper is to approximate carbon and energy footprints of the waste treatment phase and to find out what the best waste treatment option for biodegradable materials is by modelling home and industrial composting, anaerobic digestion and incineration. We have compiled data-sets for the following biodegradable materials: paper, cellulose, starch, polylactic acid (PLA), starch/polycaprolactone (MaterBi), polybutyrate-adipate- terephthalate (PBAT, Ecoflex) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) on the basis of an extensive literature search, experiments and analogies with materials for which significant experience has been made. During biological waste treatment, the materials are metabolised so a part of their embodied carbon is emitted into air and the remainder is stored as compost or digestate. The compost or digestate can replace soil conditioners supporting humus formation, which is a benefit that cannot be achieved artificially. Experimental data on biodegradable materials shows a range across the amount of carbon stored of these materials, and more trials will be required in the future to reduce these uncertainties. Experimental data has also shown that home and industrial composting differ in their emissions of nitrous oxide and methane, but it should be noted that data availability on home composting is limited. The results show that anaerobic digestion has the lowest footprint for the current level of technology, but incineration may become better in the future if energy efficiency in waste incineration plants improves significantly. Home composting is roughly equal to incineration with energy recovery in terms of carbon and energy footprint when carbon credits are considered. The same applies to industrial composting if carbon credits are assigned for compost to replace straw. Carbon credits can therefore considerably affect the results, but there are significant uncertainties in how they are calculated. Incineration may become better than home composting in the future if the average energy efficiency in waste incineration plants improves significantly. However, biological waste treatment options should be chosen when soil carbon is a limiting factor.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1159-1171
Number of pages13
JournalPolymer Degradation and Stability
Volume96
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Biodegradation
  • Carbon footprint
  • Home composting
  • Industrial composting
  • LCA

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