, Volume 13, Issue 7, pp 547-554
Date: 22 Oct 2008

Gone…but not away—addressing the problem of long-term impacts from landfills in LCA

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Abstract

Background, aim and scope

Land filling of materials with content of toxic metals or highly persistent organic compounds has posed a problem for life cycle assessment (LCA) practitioners for many years. The slow release from the landfill entails a dilution in time, which is dramatic compared to other emissions occurring in the life cycle, and with its focus on the emitted mass, LCA is poorly equipped to handle this difference. As a consequence, the long-term emissions from landfills occurring over thousands of years are often disregarded, which is unacceptable to many stakeholders considering the quantities of toxic substances that can be present. On the other hand, inclusion of all future emissions (over thousands of years) in the inventories potentially dominates all other impacts from the product system. The paper aims to present a pragmatic approach to address this dilemma.

Materials and methods

Two new impact categories are introduced representing the stored ecotoxicity and stored human toxicity of the contaminants remaining in the landfill after a ‘foreseeable’ time period of 100 years. The impact scores are calculated using the normal characterisation factors for the ecotoxicity and human toxicity impact categories, and they represent the toxicity potentials of what remains in the landfill after 100 years (hence the term ‘stored’ (eco)toxicity). Normalisation references are developed for the stored toxicity categories based on Danish figures to support comparison with indicator scores for the conventional environmental impact categories. In contrast to the scores for the conventional impact categories, it is uncertain to what extent the stored toxicity scores represent emissions, which will occur at all. Guidance is given on how to reflect this uncertainty in the weighting and interpretation of the scores.

Results and discussion

In landfills and road constructions used to deposit residuals from incinerators, less than 1% of the content of metals is leached within the first 100 years. The stored toxicity scores are therefore much higher than the conventional impact scores that represent the actual emissions. Several examples are given illustrating the use and potential significance of the stored toxicity categories.

Conclusions and perspectives

The methodology to calculate stored human and ecotoxicity is a simple and pragmatic approach to address LCA’s problem of treating the slow long-term emissions at very low concentrations appropriately. The problem resides in the inventory analysis and the impact assessment, and the methodology circumvents the problem by converting it into a weighting and interpretation issue accommodating the value-based discussion of how to weight potential effects in the far future.

Responsible editor: Michael Hauschild