We hear from different sources about what the best waste management option might be – but which one actually makes the most sense short and long term?
We also outline the different variables to consider with each waste management option.
Summary – Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
It depends on key variables such as:
The type of waste being managed (what material it is, what product it is and how it’s designed, whether it’s municipal vs commercial/industrial vs hazardous waste, and so on)
The local waste management system (how it works, what facilities and systems are available, funding, infrastructure, short and long term plans etc.) – San Francisco is an example of a city with a very high recycling/composting rate compared to landfill (which is very different to a city like New York).
On the other hand, developing countries might have no waste management systems at all, or have open/uncontained landfills which present a number of problems for human health and environmental pollution.
The market demand for recyclables
In general though, the waste management hierarchy (in order of most preferable to least) is:
Reduce (consumption … which leads to less waste)
Re-Use (and repair products, and treat waste)
Recycle, & Composting (recycle waste, and compost organic waste)
Disposal (Landfill, Incineration, Waste To Energy)
So, we might look to reduce, re-use, recycle and compost, and then dispose of waste – in that order.
Waste management is really something that needs to be looked at individually in terms of the type of waste, the local context, and across the lifecycle of the waste generation and management process (from being used in a product, to becoming waste, to being recycled X amount of times, and finally becoming landfill or incinerator waste, just as one example).
Environmental, economic, social and other factors need to be weighed up and prioritised in the decision making process.
A community might decide that recycling for example, even though more costly from a set up perspective, is a better option for them for most materials because of the potential environmental benefits.
So, there can be tradeoffs.
So to summarise:
The best option is actually to reduce, and re-use materials where possible
Recycle is usually next best for some materials, but not as much for others (there are case studies that show it might be best to recycle some types of plastics, but, some types of bags for example might do best environmentally by being incinerated)
After that, it depends on local context as to which is better out of landfill and incineration
Composting is really it’s own separate option – as only organic animal and plant matter can be composted and not other forms of man made waste – so it kind of sits off to the side compared to the other three options.
Cost & Economics
Recycling rates tend to be higher than landfill rates in some countries and cities, whilst in others, in an effort to decrease landfill waste, landfill rates or general waste bin rates are higher.
Some reports argue that in some countries, when you take subsidies for incineration and sometimes recycling out of the picture, landfill can be far cheaper.
Some reports outright claim that incineration is not profitable without subsidies.
Some reports claim that advanced recycling programs significantly increase waste collection fees for citizens if these costs aren’t recouped through taxes
You have to factor in set up costs, running/operation costs, closure and rehabilitation costs, tipping and collection costs, as well as upgrade costs for all options.
The newest incineration/waste to energy plants with air pollution and carbon reduction technology can be quite expensive
So, cost and profit margin of the different options can vary
Job creation for an advanced recycling facility can be much better than landfill or incineration plants.
There can be certain practical factors such as just one example – how much space a particular material takes up in a land fill space.
Paper for example might take up more space than plastic
Other examples might include how much open land a city has available (to develop a waste management site), or, whether a city has a constant stream of trash available for an incinerator
Environmental Impact Of Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost
In order of most to least environmentally friendly, it probably goes:
Landfill, & Incineration (depending on local waste management context and variables)
Composting is the most environmentally friendly of these options because instead of organic waste going to landfill and decomposing anaerobically, it instead decomposes aerobically in properly managed composting conditions.
This means CO2 might be produced from composting, instead of the CO2 AND methane that landfills emit.
Recycling is next best as it tends to have lower total energy use and lower global warming potential, but this can be material specific i.e. some materials might be more environmentally friendly to recycle while others might not. If we take glass for example, recycling glass can take far more energy than making it new – so it’s a case by case approach.
Something to consider with recycling is that there is also saving of resources, compared to landfill where the waste is dumped, but to make new products, new materials have to be sourced or mined and then manufactured.
Landfill and incineration can have similar environmental impacts, but it depends on the local waste systems used.
Landfill can have greenhouse gas emissions and sometimes leaking of leachate (a toxin filled substance), whilst incineration can have issues with greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the waste that is burnt.
Some landfills manage to capture methane for energy conversion, and have lining systems and good leachate management.
Some incineration plants are far better at minimising air pollution and emission than others, with Sweden being an example of this – they actually import waste from other countries because they believe their systems work so well.
In both of these instances, these types of landfills and incineration systems would be more environmentally friendly than more poorly managed ones i.e. landfills that do a poor job of energy conversion/capture and have problems with leachate leaking, and incineration that leads to significant air pollution and GHG emissions.
So, some landfills may be better than some incineration plants, and vice versa.
It’s also possible that some landfills and incineration options for some types of waste material might be better than recycling for that material – but, it depends.
Some further guides on environmental impact can be found here:
There’s also an interesting environmental analysis of recycling, incineration and landfill at https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#what-are-the-environmental-impacts-of-landfills
Cost & Economical Impact Of Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost
Cost can be broken down into several components;
Cost to set up
Cost to operate and run/maintain (or upgrade)
Cost to close and rehabilitate site
Cost to waste collectors and haulers to process or drop their waste off for dumping, recycling or incineration
[Other variables like single or dual stream waste collection can play a role too]
[There’s also the end cost for citizens through waste collection fees, taxes, and the cost of governments having to subsidize waste management options]
Not all recycling facilities are the same, not all landfill sites are the same, and not all incineration plants are the same.
How advanced the technology is, and how much the site/plant/facility meets certain standards can impact price/cost.
So, cost can vary and be down to local context too.
This is something taxpayers, waste processors haulers, businesses and industrial organisations and all involved parties have to agree on makes sense for them in terms of cost vs. sustainability and environmental benefits or pursuing a particular waste management strategy for a community.
Another economic aspect of waste management systems to consider is job creation.
Different waste processing sites and facilities and systems are going to create a different amount of jobs depending on how they work. This is something to consider too.
Some argue that some incineration plants are not profitable when run as a business, and some recycling plants can be the same (especially when the market for virgin materials becomes more competitive and prices for raw materials drop).
Below are some stats and information on costs and economic aspects of waste management options:
Cost to process waste:
On average [in the US], it costs $30 per ton to recycle trash, $50 to send it to the landfill, and $65 to $75 to incinerate it.
Cost to process waste, and which option is most efficient:
Tipping fees, which are fees for disposing waste in landfills, continue to rise [in the US] as waste production increases.
It’s much more expensive to send waste to landfill or incinerate it than it is to recycle it.
Even though landfilling is the most popular form of waste disposal, there are many more efficient and easy ways to manage waste.
Composting, recycling and reusing are practices to reduce the amount of trash we send to landfill!
Cost efficiency of different methods:
Landfills are often the most cost-efficient way to dispose of waste, especially in countries with large open spaces.
While resource recovery and incineration both require extensive investments in infrastructure, and material recovery also requires extensive manpower to maintain, landfills have fewer fixed—or ongoing—costs, allowing them to compete favorably.
In addition, landfill gas can be upgraded to natural gas—landfill gas utilization—which is a potential revenue stream.
Another advantage is having a specific location for disposal that can be monitored, where waste can be processed to remove all recyclable materials before tipping
… a complex recycling and composting operation can be an engine for job growth.
… for each ton of material, 20 more jobs are created when you recycle than if you put that material in a landfill
Pros & Cons Of Each Waste Management Option
There is further reading in these guides: