Future scenario development within life cycle assessment of waste management systems

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an acknowledged tool for quantifying the sustainability of waste management solutions. However, the use of LCA for decision-making is hindered by the strong dependency of the LCA results on the assumptions regarding the future conditions in which the waste management solutions will operate. Future scenario methods from the management engineering field may provide valid approaches for formulating consistent assumptions on future conditions for the waste management system modelled with LCA. However, the standardized LCA procedure currently does not offer much guidance on how to model future scenarios in LCA.
This thesis highlights critical findings aiming at strengthening the role of LCA in decision support and strategic planning for waste management. In particular, the thesis thoroughly investigated the future scenario methods, the existing guidance on modelling of future scenarios in LCA, all peer-reviewed articles in the literature combining future scenarios and LCA, across sectors, and the specific modelling mechanisms occurring in LCA when assessing future scenarios. For each of these aspects, the thesis investigated the specific needs of the waste management field. The quantitative modelling implications were tested within real-scale LCA models focusing on the management of residual waste in Denmark. In a wide range of scenarios, this thesis addressed the influence on the LCA model results of realistic technology and waste composition uncertainties, as well as the effects of implementing future energy scenarios and design-stage technologies.
The thesis underlines that future scenarios can be used to formulate consistent assumptions for waste management systems. However, in order to obtain well-founded quantitative results with LCA, the implementation of future scenarios should comply with the following conditions:
Future scenarios should include important aspects identified within the case-specific LCA model.
Important aspects can be identified from a preliminary LCA, but should always be evaluated again after implementing the future scenarios in LCA.
Identification of important aspects (such as parameters of the modelled technologies, waste composition, and framework conditions) ultimately governing the LCA results of the future scenarios should be regarded as a fundamental part of the future scenario process and be communicated to the final receivers of the LCA. The main outcome of this thesis is a systematic framework that can be used to assess future scenarios in LCAs of waste management systems. The framework combines approaches developed during the PhD study in order to systematically address the modelling implications of combining future scenarios and LCAs of waste management systems.
The study developed a systematic definition of importance of LCA model parameters based on their input uncertainty and their sensitivity on results with a Global Sensitivity Analysis (GSA) approach. Within LCAs of waste management systems, the GSA approach allowed quantifying the importance of the waste composition versus the more commonly tested technology parameters. Less than 10 waste composition parameters as well as 5-6 technology parameters, out of a total of 750 waste and technology parameters in the LCA model, were found important for the results across all tested impact categories. These findings were used to improve existing step-wise approaches for quantification of uncertainty in LCA. Moreover, this PhD study provided a novel method to quantitatively determine the most robust waste management solution across several future scenarios combining results of uncertainty analysis and scenario analysis into a simple and conveyable score.
The systematic framework for future scenarios in LCA should start from a preliminary LCA carried out on the case-specific system and identifying the important aspects with the GSA approach. The future scenarios can be formulated with whichever future scenario technique in preference, including the important aspects identified in the preliminary LCA. Then, the future scenarios can be implemented in further LCAs. A subsequent determination of important parameters with GSA is fundamental for identifying the aspects of the model ultimately governing the future scenario results and any necessary revisions in the future scenarios or model data. Finally, sustainability on the long-term can be strengthened by the combined use of uncertainty and scenario analysis. This means that the LCA results can be communicated as probabilities of each individual waste solution being environmentally better compared to the others, together with a clear indication of which aspects and parameters critically affect the performance of the solution.
The proposed systematic framework can be adapted to LCAs carried out in all fields and can also be used to quantitatively carry out systematic scenario analyses on the assumptions of present-day LCAs.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
PublisherDepartment of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Denmark (DTU)
Number of pages60
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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