Knowledge for better food systems

Environmental impacts of food waste management options

FCRN member Ramy Salemdeeb of Ricardo Energy & Environment used Life Cycle Assessment to calculate 14 different categories of environmental impacts of three food waste management options: incineration, composting and anaerobic digestion. Composting had the lowest impacts in 7 out of the 14 impact categories.



Food waste treatment methods have been typically analysed using current energy generation conditions. To correctly evaluate treatment methods, they must be compared under existing and potential decarbonisation scenarios. This paper holistically quantifies the environmental impacts of three food waste downstream management options—incineration, composting, and anaerobic digestion (AD).


The assessment was carried out using a novel hybrid input–output-based life cycle assessment method (LCA), for 2014, and in a future decarbonised economy. The method introduces expanded system boundaries which reduced the level of incompleteness, a previous limitation of process-based LCA.


Using the 2014 UK energy mix, composting achieved the best score for seven of 14 environmental impacts, while AD scored second best for ten. Incineration had the highest environmental burdens in six impacts. Uncertainties in the LCA data made it difficult determine best treatment option. There was significant environmental impact from capital goods, meaning current treatment facilities should be used for their full lifespan. Hybrid IO LCA’s included additional processes and reduced truncation error increasing overall captured environmental impacts of composting, AD, and incineration by 26, 10 and 26%, respectively. Sensitivity and Monte Carlo analysis evaluate the methods robustness and illustrate the uncertainty of current LCA methods. Major implication: hybrid IO-LCA approaches must become the new norm for LCA.


This study provided a deeper insight of the overall environmental performance of downstream food waste treatment options including ecological burdens associated with capital goods.



Salemdeeb, R., Bin Daina, M., Reynolds, C. and Al-Tabbaa, A., 2018. An environmental evaluation of food waste downstream management options: a hybrid LCA approach. International Journal of Recycling of Organic Waste in Agriculture, pp.1-13.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resources How are food losses and waste an environmental concern? and Environmental impacts of food: an introduction to LCA.

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