California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Climate Change and Solid Waste Management

Economic Analysis and Life Cycle Assessment of Diversion Alternatives

CalRecycle worked with RTI International, R.W. Beck, Matthew Cotton, and Dr. Sally Brown to perform a life cycle assessment of organics diversion alternatives and an economic analysis that included recyclables in support of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). The goal of the contract was to quantify the costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with alternatives to manage organic wastes and recyclables currently being landfilled in California. Alternatives analyzed included composting, chipping and grinding, recycling, anaerobic digestion, biomass-to-energy and waste-to-energy. The contract's Draft Final Report contains the Contractor’s primary conclusions regarding numbers, types, and costs of waste management facilities needed to achieve minimum energy consumption, minimum greenhouse gas emissions, and least cost scenarios. The Draft GHG Calculator Tool allows users to modify key assumptions and conduct additional analyses that were not conducted as part of the contract. However, because of significant project challenges explained below, CalRecycle advises that the contract's Draft Report and Draft Tool products should not be used for purposes of greenhouse gas inventories, project-specific CEQA analysis, in developing climate action plans, or as a basis for policy decisions regarding organics management. CalRecycle has concluded that additional economic analysis and life cycle assessment of the green house gas emissions from landfilling, composting, chipping and grinding, recycling, anaerobic digestion, biomass-to-energy and waste-to-energy is warranted. Accordingly, CalRecycle has developed a workplan that delineates further actions needed to address data gaps and related challenges, and indicated which aspects of the workplan it is able to fulfill at this time.

Project Challenges

First, the project was significantly hindered by an inability to secure California-specific facility data as a fundamental building block for analyzing the various waste management alternatives and scenarios. In summer of 2008, California’s budget crisis resulted in a suspension in all contracting work, which put this project on hold for three months. When the project resumed in fall 2008, the critical task was collecting economic and life cycle inventory data from California solid waste and recycling businesses. However, at this time the economy was in the midst of a severe downturn, commodity prices were deteriorating, demand for recycled materials was decreasing, and many companies (including those in the recycling and solid waste sector) were going through reduction in workforce exercises. These economic conditions made it difficult for businesses to allocate scarce staff resources to complete the contract's life cycle inventory and economic survey. Another barrier to the data collection effort was confidentiality concerns, especially with respect to the financial data, even though a confidentiality agreement was offered. Despite a substantial investment of time and resources, the effort to collect economic and life cycle inventory data from California businesses was largely unsuccessful. The Contractor instead had to resort to secondary data that lacks both California and regional specificity. As a result of these problems, there has been intense and controversial stakeholder discussion regarding the applicability of the primary conclusions to the solid waste and recycling industry in California and concerns over a lack of transparency in the work products.

Second, the issue of how to treat sequestration of carbon in landfills has been a source of significant controversy and debate, with no consensus emerging. CalRecycle and the Contractor were not consistent in how this was treated. In the October 2009 Draft Final Project Report, the amount of carbon stored in landfills was calculated but not clearly reported. Technically it is correct to quantify and report the amount of carbon stored in a landfill and this should have been included in the report. The greenhouse gas emissions from landfills are sensitive to the treatment of landfill carbon storage. The October 2009 Draft Final Project Report and the June 2009 Draft Project Report illustrate the sensitivity of landfill emissions to the treatment of landfill carbon storage. In the June 2009 report findings, landfills are a net sink of greenhouse gas emissions while in the October 2009 report findings landfills are a source of greenhouse gas emissions. CalRecycle staff’s position is that it is technically correct to quantify and report the amount of carbon stored in a landfill. However, interpreting the carbon stored in a landfill as offsetting landfill methane emissions is inconsistent with the atmospheric flow approach that is currently being utilized in California.

Project Analysis

In general, CalRecycle views the Draft Report and Draft Tool as an important step forward in examining the overall costs and green house gas emissions associated with managing materials that are currently landfilled via one of the six diversion alternatives. As noted above, however, the Draft Report and Draft Tool should not be used for purposes of greenhouse gas inventories, project-specific CEQA analysis, in the development of climate action plans or as a basis for policy decisions regarding organics management. The Draft Report and Draft Tool do contain useful information to identify costs, greenhouse gas emission burdens and offsets associated with landfilling and the six waste management alternatives that were studied. The Draft Report and Draft Tool were instrumental in the development of CalRecycle’s LCA Workplan.

CalRecycle prepared a substantive review of the Draft Report and Draft Tool which was discussed at a Stakeholder Workshop on April 19, 2010. The review resulted in the development of the Organics LCA Evaluation Matrix, a lengthy document that includes the comments we received during the course of the project, CalRecycle’s analysis of the deliverables, and responses from the Contractors.

If you have any questions, please contact: Clark Williams or Teri Wion.

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Last updated: December 9, 2010
Climate Change: http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/Climate/
Contact: climatechange@calrecycle.ca.gov