International organizations, including the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the European Environmental Agency, and the U.S. EPA, use life-cycle assessments (LCA) to assess the environmental impacts of a product or process, from the extraction of raw materials to final disposition at the end of life.

Applied to waste management, an LCA assesses the environmental impacts and trade-offs of different management approaches and can be a useful decision-making tool for communities, governments and industry as they consider sustainable waste management options. Well-executed LCAs based on models often validate their results against measured data to make sure any assumptions are reasonable.

In assessing waste management facilities, it is often necessary to evaluate the benefits of products or services delivered alongside the primary waste management objective (“co-products”). In the case of WTE, co-products include energy generation and recycled metals. Co-products from landfills include energy generated from the collected landfill gas. A comparative LCA assesses the relative difference in impacts between two options. An LCA can also be performed on a co-product.

For examples of an LCA that allows for comparison of different waste management approaches for post-recycled waste, check out the studies from U.S. EPA and State University of New York – Buffalo scientists.