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Environmental impact and cost assessment of incineration and ethanol production as municipal solid waste management strategies



Municipal solid waste (MSW) can be handled with several traditional management strategies, including landfilling, incineration, and recycling. Ethanol production from MSW is a novel strategy that has been proposed and researched for practical use; however, MSW ethanol plants are not widely applied in practice. Thus, this study has been conducted to analyze and compare the environmental and economic performance of incineration and ethanol production as alternatives to landfilling MSW.


The ISO 14040 life cycle assessment framework is employed to conduct the environmental impact assessment of three different scenarios for the two MSW management strategies based on processing 1 ton of MSW as the functional unit. The first scenario models the process of incinerating MSW and recovering energy in the form of process heat; the second scenario also includes the process of incinerating MSW but yields in the recovery of energy in the form of electricity; and the third scenario models the process of converting MSW into ethanol. The economic impacts of each scenario are then assessed by performing benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) and net present value (NPV) analyses.

Results and discussion

The results from the environmental impact assessment of each scenario reveal that scenario 2 has the highest benefits for resource availability while scenario 3 is shown to be the best alternative to avoid human health and ecosystems diversity impacts. Scenario 1 has the worst environmental performance with respect to each of these environmental endpoint indicators and has net environmental impacts. The results of the economic analysis indicate that the third scenario is the best option with respect to BCR and NPV, followed by scenarios 2 and 1, respectively. Furthermore, environmental and economic analysis results are shown to be sensitive to MSW composition.


It appears municipalities should prefer MSW incineration with electricity generation or MSW-to-ethanol conversion over MSW incineration with heat recovery as an alternative to landfilling. The contradiction between the environmental impact assessment results and economic analysis results demonstrates that the decision-making process is sensitive to a broad set of variables. Decisions for a specific MSW management system are subject to facility location and size, MSW composition, energy prices, and governmental policies.

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The authors wish to express their gratitude to Mr. James Titmas of GeneSyst International, Inc. (Hudson, OH) who graciously provided his input on the GPV process.

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Correspondence to Karl R. Haapala.

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Responsible editor: Shabbir Gheewala

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Bozorgirad, M.A., Zhang, H., Haapala, K.R. et al. Environmental impact and cost assessment of incineration and ethanol production as municipal solid waste management strategies. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18, 1502–1512 (2013).

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  • Cost analysis
  • Environmental Impact
  • Ethanol production
  • Incineration
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Municipal solid waste