Comparative lifecycle assessment of alternatives for waste management in Rio de Janeiro – Investigating the influence of an attributional or consequential approach
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The environmental impacts from three management alternatives for organic fraction of municipal solid waste were compared using lifecycle assessment methodology. The alternatives (sanitary landfill, selective collection of organic waste for anaerobic digestion and anaerobic digestion after post-separation of organic waste) were modelled applying an attributional as well as consequential approach, in parallel with the aim of identifying if and how these approaches can affect results and conclusions. The marginal processes identified in the consequential modelling were in general associated with higher environmental impacts than average processes modelled with an attributional approach. As all investigated waste management alternatives result in net-substitution of energy and in some cases also materials, the consequential modelling resulted in lower absolute environmental impacts in five of the seven environmental impact categories assessed in the study. In three of these, the chosen modelling approach can alter the hierarchy between compared waste management alternatives. This indicates a risk of underestimating potential benefits from efficient energy recovery from waste when applying attributional modelling in contexts in which electricity provision historically has been dominated by technologies presenting rather low environmental impacts, but where projections point at increasing impacts from electricity provision in coming years. Thus, in the present case study, the chosen approach affects both absolute and relative results from the comparison. However, results were largely related to the processes identified as affected by investigated changes, and not merely the chosen modelling approach. The processes actually affected by future choices between different waste management alternatives are intrinsically uncertain. The study demonstrates the benefits of applying different assumptions regarding the processes affected by investigated choices – both for provision of energy and materials substituted by waste management processes in consequential LCA modelling, in order to present outcomes that are relevant as decision support within the waste management sector.