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Monitoring the environmental impact of waste management with lifecycle-based indicators


© EU; Photo: C. PalhaA recently published article by the IES scientists investigates the use of quantitative lifecycle-based indicators in quantifying and monitoring the environmental effects of European waste management. These macro-level indicators, whose development is led by the IES, combine waste management statistics with data on the emissions and resources consumed during the lifecycle of the waste management process (from generation to final disposal). Each indicator describes the potential environmental impact of a particular waste stream.

In 2012, the EU-27 generated almost 300 million tonnes of waste (an average of 500 kg per person), about 40% of which was landfilled, 40% recycled and 20% incinerated. While significant progress in waste management in Europe has been made, particularly with regard to reductions in waste landfilling, waste generation is continuously growing and its management is becoming increasingly complex.

The macro-level waste management indicators are designed to support environmentally sound decision-making for waste management by quantifying and monitoring the potential environmental impacts, benefits and improvements of several waste management streams in Europe. They have so far been developed for the EU-27 as a whole  and Germany.

Using the developed set of indicators, the authors found the highest environmental impacts to be associated with the treatment of household and similar waste, which was responsible for about 2.5% of the total climate change impacts of the EU and almost 4% of freshwater eutrophication. On the other hand, recycling of metals brings significant environmental benefits (i.e. reduction of environmental impacts) for climate change, ozone depletion and acidification.

The main obstacle to the calculation of waste management indicators was the lack of information. The authors call for more detailed and quality-assured waste statistics for the various treatment options, and more detailed and consistent information on waste categories and composition. They also suggest that the indicators be further developed to include more waste streams for all EU Member States.

The waste management indicators are based on a lifecycle thinking (LCT) perspective, accounting for the overall impacts of the generation and management of waste, such as the shifting of burdens and the environmental impacts of waste management options. In a broad perspective, they will support the implementation of lifecycle-based environmental policies, including the Waste Framework Directive, the Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan and the Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste.

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