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Paper and cardboard waste - how to deal with it?

The initial goal of the report "Paper and cardboard – recovery or disposal" is to find out if studies that pass a quality test reach the same conclusion. The second, and more important, objective is to find our why results of such studies differ. Here, the report looks at how definitions of system boundaries, i.e. how much of the full life cycle system is included in the assessment, and other parameters influence the results.

The initial goal of the report "Paper and cardboard – recovery or disposal" is to find out if studies that pass a quality test reach the same conclusion. The second, and more important, objective is to find our why results of such studies differ. Here, the report looks at how definitions of system boundaries, i.e. how much of the full life cycle system is included in the assessment, and other parameters influence the results.

The report uses the findings to discuss the possibilities and limitations of LCA and CBA studies as tools in guiding decisions on waste policy, particularly at European level.

The reviewed LCA studies, which pass a quality control test, all reach the same conclusion on treatment options - namely that from an environmental point of view recycling is better than incineration or landfilling. For the CBA studies, it is not possible to set a common quality standard due to large variations between the studies. However, it is noted that the analysed, quality selected CBA studies, do not reach a consensus on what is environmentally the best option.

The two ways of approaching the problem are quite different: LCA is based on natural sciences and analyses environmental impacts from "cradle to grave" of a specific product or process. CBA is based on welfare economics and attempts to place a monetary value on the environmental and social impacts of a policy, and add them to its commercial costs. Individually, these tools are not able to explain all relevant aspects of a project, and they should rather be seen as complementary.

All nine LCA studies conclude that recycling results in fewer overall environmental impacts than both landfilling and incineration. More than half of the nine CBA studies conclude that recycling is the preferred waste management option, whereas incineration and/or landfill are preferred in the remaining studies and scenarios. If the time cost is excluded, the preference for recycling becomes more explicit.

Overall, the nine CBA studies differ a lot with regard to both system boundaries and methodology. A key parameter such as the price put on the time individuals spend on recycling tends to influence conclusions a lot. This, and the limited number of studies, makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the CBA studies on what is the preferable option for waste paper management.

The EEA report thus notes that the outcome of the studies depends a lot on the implicit assumptions made. Furthermore, while LCA methodology is fairly well developed, there is not yet a generally accepted methodology for CBA studies. This of course complicates comparisons. Also, LCA studies tend to be less bound to national geographical limitations than CBA studies, though they do attempt to say something more general. When offered to policymakers as a support for their decision-making, it is important that they are made aware of such limitations.

See report - Paper and cardboard - recovery or disposal?

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100