In the guide below, we compare Landfill vs Recycling vs Compost vs Incineration.
We consider which of these waste management options might be the best across different areas – environmental, economic, and practical.
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?
Overall, landfills, recycling, incineration and composting all offer different capabilities for waste management, and all come with their own pros, cons, and tradeoffs.
The % share that each one makes up of a city or town’s overall waste strategy depends on a range of variables and factors, such as the types of waste generated, the current waste management systems in place, and also the desire and capability (especially financial) for a city or town to modify their existing waste management systems and practices.
Whilst landfill is currently the most commonly used waste management option on a global scale, some individual cities divert a significant % of their waste away from landfill (to either recycling and composting in the case of San Francisco, or incineration in the case of some Scandinavian countries), and these other methods of waste management may grow in use in the future.
In reality, each of these different waste management options may be able to be used alongside each other in a larger waste management strategy on the city or town level. They might complement each other process waste that is more suitable managed by one option over another.
When considering which waste management option is best from an environmental, economics, and practical perspective …
Environmentally, different waste management concepts like the waste hierarchy indicate that the best waste management option might actually be to prevention or reduce waste (and reduce consumption) where possible
Beyond prevention and reduction though, it depends on various factors as to what the most eco friendly waste management option is. We list some of these factors below in this guide.
Also in the guide below, we outline how:
– One report finds recycling to be the most eco friendly option for some plastics when measuring total energy use and global warming potential
– Another report finds incineration to be the most eco friendly option for some types of carrier bags
– Some types of waste may be better off disposed of (via landfill or another disposal method) and replaced, rather than re-used
The economics of each of these waste management options involves taking into account a wide range of economic factors, which we outline in the guide below
To summarise, the economics of each waste management option varies between different cities and towns based on these factors.
Some reports indicate that recycling specific waste items can be profitable, whilst recycling others isn’t
Some reports indicate that incineration is not economically feasible when subsidies are taken into account
Some reports indicate that landfill can be more expensive in cities where dumping fees are higher than the fees to offload waste to other waste management options
There’s a range of factors (which we list in the guide below) that have to be taken into account when assessing the practicality of using different waste management options, particularly for different types of waste.
As just a few main examples …
Only some types of waste can be composted
Only some types of waste can be recycled (such as some recyclable vs non recyclable plastics), and there is a limit on how many times some types of waste can be recycled before they can’t be anymore
New landfill sites require a certain amount of suitable land in order to be approved and established, and not all cities and towns have this available land
Only some waste materials might have enough energy density to be suitable for waste-to-energy incineration
Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost – Environmental Considerations
The environmental impact of each waste management option depends on several variables.
For example, the type of waste, the processes and technology used at the waste management facility or site, and the environmental indicator being measured, can all significantly change the environmental outcome.
General Environmental Considerations
We’ve put together guides on the potential environmental impact of each waste management option can be found here:
Are Landfills Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Is Recycling Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Is Composting Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Is Waste Incineration Good Or Bad For The Environment?
As a general summary of each:
When waste goes to landfills, materials and resources contained in that waste (such as metals in e-waste for example) aren’t being recovered or recycled. This impacts the sustainable use of resources.
Additionally, these are some of the key factors that can impact how environmentally friendly a landfill site is:
How effective the soil liner is at not letting leachate and other pollutant and toxic substances breach the liner and get into the soil and environment. The adequacy of soil liner maintenance and also replacement also matters
How good the leachate management system is
Whether the landfill uses to gas to energy technology (and captures gas like methane and converts it to energy)
How well the landfill site is secured from waste leaking from the site (and becoming waste pollution). Plastic pollution in some countries for example happens when plastic leaks from dumping sites or landfills that aren’t secure or contained adequately
Whether the land is rehabilitated after the landfill’s lifespan comes to an end
Recycling obviously allows some materials to be recovered and re-used in the form of recycled content/recycled material
Recycling some materials may also save energy and reduce emissions compared to producing it from virgin resources/materials – some metals may be an example of this, whist using recycled glass cullet may be another
However, recycling has it’s own environmental footprint related to fuel used for waste collection and transporting waste along the recycling chain, and also the energy and water used at recycling facilities
How efficiently and effectively facilities can recycle waste can also impact the environmental footprint of the facility, and how efficient recycling streams are (multi stream glass recycling for example can be more efficient than single stream, but can also be more expensive)
Some of the major environmental considerations for incineration and waste to energy plants are:
Whether or not they use emissions and air pollutant capture technology and devices (such as dioxin filters and air pollution/GHG emission capture technology)
How they treat fly ash waste byproduct (and also bottom ash) from the leftover waste material (and the heavy metals and toxins found in the leftover waste)
How efficiently waste is converted to energy i.e. efficiency rates
What local regulations, laws and standards are in place for environmental impact
What the requirements are for auditing and reporting for incineration plants
Composting might be reasonably environmentally friendly for organic waste, as the organic waste can biodegrade and compost into organic matter or a compost mix that can be used as a fertiliser for soil
From an emissions perspective, whether the process is aerobic or anaerobic composting matters. Anaerobic composting might release more methane, however, aerobic composting may still release a certain amount of carbon dioxide
Report 1 On Environmental Considerations
There’s an interesting environmental analysis of recycling, incineration and landfill for the management of plastic waste at ourworldindata.org
Although they only take into account global warming potential, and energy use, they indicate that recycling has the lowest total energy use and lower global warming potential of the three options
Read the full guide for a full analysis and breakdown
Report 2 On Environmental Considerations
There’s also a case study that was carried out on carrier bags made of different materials
What the case study concluded was that for some types of bags, after re-use, incineration was the most favorable waste management option from a environmental perspective
Report 3 On Environmental Considerations
Lastly, in this guide about the waste hierarchy, we mentioned how although the waste hierarchy may generally indicate that re-using a product might be better than disposing of it and buying it new, some products may be better off disposed of and replaced than being re-used.
The example given is an older model energy inefficient washing machine, and how replacing it with a newer model energy efficient washing machine may be better for some environmental indicators than fixing and continuing to use the existing inefficient model.
Products that have a greater environmental/sustainability impact at the usage stage of their lifecycle may fit into this category of products.
Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost – Economic Considerations
The individual and comparative economic feasibility of each these waste management options depend heavily on different economic variables, including but not limited to:
– The cost to build, operate, maintain, upgrade, and close down/decommission a facility/site, and potentially also to rehabilitate the land (in the case of landfills)
The technology used at different waste management sites can have a significant impact on the cost of the plant. For example, facilities using the most modern technology and devices might be more expensive.
Additionally, because of the cost of operating an incineration plant and because of the way contracts are set up, some incineration plants may need a consistent waste stream in order to offset operating costs or to satisfy some contractual conditions
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.
– Collection and hauling fees, and also tipping and dumping fees
The dumping fees of the different waste management options differ between different towns and cities, and this impacts the cost to use each waste management option in different locales
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 (usi.edu)
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.
Some reports though claim that some advanced recycling programs significantly increase waste collection fees for citizens if these costs aren’t recouped through taxes
– Taxes, subsidies, concessions, and other public funding or financial support for a particular waste management option
These costs are ultimately paid for by the tax paying citizen base
– Profit when net costs, government subsidies and additional public fees are subtracted from net revenue
The net cost or profitability of each waste management option can ultimately be difficult to calculate accurately because of the different economic factors, but also because of subsidies, taxes and public funding for each waste management option
Some reports argue that in some cities, 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. The newest incineration/waste to energy plants with air pollution and carbon reduction technology can be quite expensive
– The total economic value a waste management option contributes to the economy
For example, recycling is it’s own industry in several economies, with it’s own contributed economic value.
– The job creation and employment created by each option
cnbc.com mentions this about recycling and composting compared to landfills specifically:
… a complex recycling and composting operation can be an engine for job growth … [where] for each ton of material, 20 more jobs are created when you recycle than if you put that material in a landfill
– Local, national and international markets for waste management products such as recycled material, or energy from waste, and competition with alternatives (such as energy produced from other sources)
Is it cheaper to recycle materials, or to make them new or import them? Some glass is cheaper to import in some countries than to recycle locally
The local energy mix also has to be considered – is energy cheaper to obtain from the local energy grid, or from waste to energy plants instead?
– Balancing economic considerations vs other considerations (environmental, social, etc)
Taxpayers, waste processors haulers, businesses and industrial organisations, and all involved parties have to decide which waste management option provides the best cost vs benefits tradeoff
– In the instance of recycling specifically, there are different considerations
The number of recycling bins made available in municipal waste streams. Each additional bin is an additional cost for citizens. Multi stream recycling streams may also be more expensive than single stream recycling
The cost of recycling materials vs making materials new from virgin resources. In some countries, glass can be cheaper to import than to recycle
– For waste to energy plants, and gas capture at landfills, what the cost of energy is from other sources locally
Waste to energy plants and methane to energy capture systems at landfills ultimately have to compete with the local price of energy from other sources such as fossil fuels and renewable energy
How competitive the energy price is impacts economics
We put together a guide discussing many of the above points specifically for recycling in this guide
We also mention some of the above points in our different pros and cons guides for each waste management option
Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Compost – Practical Considerations
Some of the practical consideration for each waste management option might include, but aren’t limited to:
Only some types of waste can be are recyclable (whilst some are non recyclable)
Some waste items and materials can only be recycled a limited number of times before they can’t be recycled anymore
Some materials and also products containing materials are far easier to recycle compared to others for various reasons. For example, the design of a product can impact how easy and efficient it is to recycle the different materials that the product is made of
Only organic waste can be composted (or compostable waste)
New landfill sites need a certain square area of suitable land to be approved and established. Land poor regions may not have enough land or enough suitable land for new sites
Also, in landfills, some waste takes up more space than others. Paper for example might take up more space than plastic
Only some waste materials have enough energy density to make waste-to-energy incineration worth it
Miscellaneous Variables To Consider For Each Waste Management Option
Some other miscellaneous variables to consider for each waste management option that may impact which one is better or more suitable to use might include, but aren’t limited to:
Some of the other recycling variables to consider might be:
– There’s different types and methods of recycling
– Different cities and towns have different recycling facilities, and these facilities have different capabilities to recycle waste.
San Francisco is an example of a city with advanced recycled systems and facilities
– Different materials have different recycling rates to other materials for various reasons
– The same material can have different recycling rates in different countries (such as differing glass recycling rates between different countries, such as the US and parts of Europe) for various reasons
Some of the other incineration variables to consider might be:
– There’s different incinerators with different designs, technology, systems and features (and the different air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions capture technology in place)
– What types of energy sources or energy mixes in a city are being replaced for energy generation i.e. some waste to energy plants are replacing the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation, whilst others might be replacing renewable energy like solar or wind
Another way to say the above is … whether incineration, and waste to energy, is a net positive, can depend on the efficiency of the process, and the energy mix that waste to energy is replacing.
If it’s an inefficient waste to energy process and it’s replacing a low fossil fuel energy mix – incineration can be a net negative
– What local regulations, laws and standards are in place for human health and safety when it comes to air pollution and toxic/hazardous waste by-product. Auditing also matters here.
A combination of recycling and composting can save three to four times more energy than an incinerator can produce (zerowasteeurope.eu)
Some of the other landfill variables to consider might be:
– Different landfills accept different types of waste, and have different waste ‘cells’ on-site
– What range of uses the landfill has apart from the dumping of waste (for example, whether the landfill utilises waste to energy technology, whether there’s a resource recovery program in place for the landfill, and whether the landfill is used for storage for some other use)
Some of the other composting variables to consider might be that different composting sites:
– Use different types and methods of composting
– Have aerobic vs anaerobic composting conditions
– Have other composting conditions that differ between composting operation
– Produce different composting products that can be used for different things e.g. as organic matter or fertilizers used for soil
Pros & Cons Of Each Waste Management Option
There is further reading in these guides:
Pros & Cons Of Waste Incineration