Publication | Conference contributions

Carbon Footprint of Sorting for a Middle-Caloric Fraction After Mechanical-Biological Treatment

Published 2012

Citation: Rixrath D, Piringer G, Ragoßnig AM, Meirhofer M. Carbon Footprint of Sorting for a Middle-Caloric Fraction After Mechanical-Biological Treatment, ISWA Annual Congress Florence 2012, 17th-19th of September 2012, Florence, Italy. (peer reviewed)


Management of municipal and commercial waste in Austria frequently involves mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) followed by incineration. A middle-caloric MBT output stream (lower heating value (LHV) = 9.90 MJ/kg WW, particle size = 20-80 mm) with a high proportion of inert material like stones, bricks, and metals (40.5 %m) is currently incinerated. Under favorable market conditions, it could be economically advantageous to split off a low-caloric heavy fraction (HF) that can be landfilled and to incinerate only the remaining, lighter fraction (LF) with a higher heating value. This study analyzes the specific global-warming potential (100-year GWP per tonne of input waste) of such an additional separation step and of the subsequent treatment processes. Four treatment alternatives were considered: a reference scenario without separation and three separation scenarios – a near-infrared (NIR) sensor-based scenario, an X-ray-transmission (XRT) sensor-based scenario, and a mechanical separation scenario using a diagonal sifter (DS). To calculate the specific GWP, the analysis applied techniques from life-cycle assessment (LCA). Primary data were obtained from pilot-scale and full-scale separation experiments, and from equipment manufacturers. Commercial databases provided secondary data. The results consist of separate LCA models for each scenario, including credits for fossil fuels replaced by LF incineration and HF landfill gas utilization. When only direct separation-related emissions are considered, the DS separation has by far the lowest specific GWP, followed by NIR-based separation, and by XRT-based separation. Overall specific GWP is strongly influenced by the choice of separation technology. It is lowest for the XRT scenario, followed closely by the reference scenario, while the DS and NIR scenarios show considerably higher results. Results are dominated by the net emissions from LF incineration. While incineration emissions are largely compensated by credits from replaced fossil fuels, credits for landfill gas utilization are much smaller than direct landfilling emissions. The ranking of the separation scenarios is largely determined by three waste stream characteristics: the ratio of biogenic to fossil carbon content and the LHV in the LF, and the degradable biogenic carbon content in the HF. Changes in important modeling assumptions leave the ranking between scenarios unchanged. It can be concluded that – given the right choice of
separation technology – a small positive effect of sorting on the overall specific GWP is feasible. This
work demonstrates that global warming effects of waste treatment decisions can be estimated and
considered early in the planning stage of treatment system design.