Big potential of cutting greenhouse gases from waste

News Published 29 Aug 2011 Last modified 10 Dec 2019
3 min read
Photo: © iStockphoto
There is a big potential to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs) from municipal solid waste management, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). The report, 'Waste opportunities – Past and future climate benefits from better municipal waste management in Europe', covers the EU-27 (excluding Cyprus), Norway and Switzerland. It estimates that these countries could make GHG savings of up to 78 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) by 2020, or 1.53 % of Europe's emissions in 2008.

Biodegradable waste sent to landfill produces methane when the organic material decomposes anaerobically. Although this potent GHG can be captured and used to generate energy, much of it escapes into the atmosphere where it has a powerful climate forcing effect. Reducing the amount of waste going to landfill is therefore an important objective of EU waste policies.

Nonetheless, waste volumes continue to rise across the EU. The average EU citizen generated 468 kg of municipal solid waste in 1995, which increased to 524 kg in 2008. This could rise to 558 kg per person by 2020 unless effective policies are put in place to reduce waste generation.

The report takes a ‘life-cycle approach’ to calculating emissions from waste, considering all direct emissions from waste during processing and transport. In addition, it also accounts for emissions that are avoided in other parts of the economy – for example, accounting for the reduction of emissions when fossil fuels are displaced by energy recovered from waste. In this way, the method can show the potential impacts of various waste management strategies.

Especially recycling leads to avoided emissions. This is because recycling materials from municipal waste avoids emissions that would have been generated in extracting and processing virgin raw materials and these avoided emissions are higher than the emissions caused by the recycling processes. More details on the calculations, assumptions and data are available in this working paper

Three different scenarios for 2020 illustrate that the potential for GHG savings largely depends on how countries implement EU waste policies, in particular whether they meet the EU Landfill Directive targets to reduce landfill of biodegradable municipal waste.

Key findings from three different scenarios

  • In a business-as-usual scenario, net GHG emissions from municipal waste management would be cut by 44 million tonnes CO2-e until 2020 compared to 2008. The two main factors responsible for this improvement are reduced methane emissions from landfill and increased avoided emissions through recycling.
  • If all countries fully meet the Landfill Directive’s waste diversion targets, potential life-cycle GHG emissions from municipal waste management in 2020 could be cut by 62 million tonnes CO2-e, which equals 1.23 % of their total GHG emissions in 2008.
  • A complete ban on landfilling could cut emissions even further, reducing potential net emissions from waste management in 2020 by 78 million tonnes CO2-e compared to 2008. For the sake of comparison, this is more than Hungary’s total emissions in 2008.


An analysis by the OECD , following a somewhat different but also life-cycle based approach, broadly confirms the findings of the EEA work, namely, that better management of municipal waste has a significant potential to reduce GHG emissions.

Encouragingly, ever more municipal solid waste is recycled and less is landfilled. The EU recycled 17 % of its municipal solid waste in 1995 and 40 % in 2008. In that period, the amount going to landfill dropped from 68 % to 40 %. These improvements have already cut annual net GHG emissions by 48 million tonnes CO2-e between 1995 and 2008 in the EU-27, Norway and Switzerland.

Kitchen and garden waste is the biggest fraction of municipal solid waste in most EU countries. This represents a sizeable opportunity to cut emissions through recycling and energy recovery – in 2008, 44 million tonnes of organic matter was composted, emitting 1.4 million tonnes CO2-e. If that had been subjected to anaerobic digestion, producing useful biogas, it could have cut 2 million tonnes CO2-e from Europe’s emissions.

In addition to climate concerns, increasing recycling and energy recovery also enhances resource efficiency, a main goal of the EU2020 strategy. However, even the most effective waste management strategy generates GHGs and causes the loss of resources. Authors note that the best strategy is avoiding generating waste in the first place.