New report published – Incentives for recycling and incineration in Product Environmental Footprint

Wednesday, 03 March, 2021

In the project “Incentives for energy recovery in LCA for plastics”, we investigated the risk that Product Environmental Footprint of plastics give incentives to send plastic waste to incineration instead of recycling even when recycling is the best option from an environmental point of view. The aim was also to increase knowledge about the extent to which correct incentives can be obtained through a deeper understanding of how to model energy recovery.

From an environmental point of view recycling of plastics is often preferable over sending it to energy recovery. When recycling is beneficial for the environment, the results from an LCA should give incentives for recycling and for the use of recycled material in new products. In the recently reported project “Modeling of recycling” (funded by Re:Source), the project team found a risk that LCA can give wrong incentives, favoring energy recovery over material recycling. This might give consumers the wrong impression that sorting waste is unnecessary and instead send all plastic waste to energy recovery. The incentive to producers to design for material recycling is also lost when it looks like energy recovery is the best choice from an environmental point of view.

The project “Incentives for energy recovery in LCA for plastics” (funded by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency) is a spin of project aiming to further study the risk of LCA giving the wrong incentives and to look into possible solutions. One such solution is factor B in the circular footprint formula (CFF), which is used for modelling recycling and energy recovery in the EU framework for Product Environmental Footprint. Factor B allocates a share of the burdens and benefits of energy recovery away from the product generating the waste. The default value of B is zero, but we present arguments for a higher value on B and present an approach for calculating it.

Another possible solution is based on the observation that Swedish waste incinerators are typically used to the maximum capacity thanks to waste imports. We expand the boundaries to account for the impacts on European waste management when domestic plastic waste replaces imported waste in the incinerators.

Tomas Ekvall, TERRA/Chalmers University of Technology, main researcher in the project: “On the surface, this project is about the Circular Footprint Formula of the PEF methodology, applied to LDPE waste management. The revelation to me, however, is that an accurate modelling of the foreseeable consequences of sending material to recycling is not enough to guide the decision. It is a bit like modelling the consequences of clapping one hand.”

We investigate how Factor B and the broader, European systems perspective affect the LCA results for waste management of LDPE plastics, both from fossil and renewable sources. Our results indicate that both Factor B and a wider systems perspective make the CFF more balanced and consistent. The wider systems perspective introduces large uncertainties, but Factor B>0 reduces the risk for LCA results that gives the wrong incentives. Neither of the solutions amends the limitation that LCA is a method that focuses on one product at the time. This might not be sufficient to guide increased recycling or other developments that require concerted actions between actors in different life cycles.

In January 2021, results from the project were presented at a webinar. Tomas Ekvall (Chalmers University of Technology/TERRA), Maja Nellström and Marie Gottfridsson (IVL) presented the study, and a recording can be found on Swedish Life Cycle Centers YouTube Channel or watch the video below.


More information:

About the project

Report from the project

About Swedish Life Cycle Centers project within Product Environmental Footprint

Text: Maria Rydberg & Tomas Ekvall