Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from municipal solid waste (MSW) in the UK are about five times greater than those of Germany, according to a recent study. To compare this figure with transport emissions, this difference would be equivalent to removing 1.2 million cars from UK roads.
This study compared the carbon footprint of MSW management in Germany and the UK. The amount of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emitted per tonne of MSW for each country was calculated and all GHG emissions were expressed in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 equ) emissions.
Germany and the UK generate similar quantities of MSW. For example, in 2007, each person generated 564 kg of MSW in Germany compared with 572 kg in the UK. The EU-15 average was 562 kg for each person. In addition, both countries produce MSW with similar composition.
The study estimated that the UK carbon footprint from MSW is approximately five times greater than Germany's: 165.3 kg of CO2 equ emissions in the UK compared with 33.5 kg of CO2 equ emissions in Germany. Emissions avoided through recycling (from not using virgin materials) and energy recovery from energy from waste (EfW) plants (waste to energy (WtE) plants in Germany) was accounted for in the calculations.
The difference in carbon footprints can be explained by the very different ways the two countries manage their waste. In 2007, more than 60 per cent of MSW in Germany was recycled, about 30 per cent was combusted in EfW plants, and only about one per cent was sent to landfill. This compares with the UK system, where about 30 per cent of MSW was recycled, about 10 per cent was combusted in EfW facilities and approximately 55 per cent was sent to landfill.
Waste is efficiently sorted in Germany, with only 1 per cent of landfilled waste allowed to be organic. This means that less GHGs are produced both overall and per unit mass of landfilled waste. In the UK, for every tonne of MSW, 656.3 kg is landfilled which produces 272.7 kg of CO2 equ emissions. In contrast, for every tonne of MSW in Germany, 76 kg is sent to landfill which produces just 2.5 kg of CO2 equ.
Although both countries operate under the same EU regulations, Germany has set stricter targets for waste management than the UK. Germany aims to completely recover MSW by 2020, eliminating all landfill disposal. This target will be reached through refund systems for reusable and recyclable bottles and cans; kerbside collection of separated household waste; and legislation controlling the amount of waste going to landfill.
Management of MSW varies across different regions of the UK. Overall, landfill disposal has fallen by about 15 per cent since 2001, with significant increases in MSW being composted and treated at material recovery facilities.
Source: Mühle, S., Balsam, I., Cheeseman, C.R. (2010). Comparison of carbon emissions associated with municipal solid waste management in Germany and the UK. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2009.12.009.