Assessing the economic and environmental sustainability of household food waste management in the UK: Current situation and future scenarios

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The value embedded in food waste is increasingly being recognised, with the UN targeting a 50% reduction in consumer food waste and the EU recycling of 60% of all household waste, both by 2030. Aiming to provide guidance on the most sustainable food waste utilisation routes, this study evaluates the life cycle environmental and economic sustainability of five plausible scenarios for the year 2030. Focusing on the UK for context, these are compared to the current treatment of food waste as well as to its potential future prevention. The scenarios consider a differing share of four widely-used treatment methods: anaerobic digestion, in-vessel composting, incineration and landfilling. The scenario with the highest anaerobic digestion share that recovers both heat and electricity is the best option for seven out of 19 environmental impacts and the second best for life cycle costs. Upgrading anaerobic digestion biogas to biomethane achieves the lowest global warming potential and life cycle costs. Net-negative global warming potential (savings) can be achieved if the heat from anaerobic digestion and incineration or biomethane are utilised to displace natural gas. Displacing a future electricity mix does not lead to significant global warming potential savings due to the expected grid decarbonisation. However, savings are still achieved for metal depletion and human and terrestrial toxicities as they are higher for decarbonised grid electricity due to the increased share of renewables. A greater share of in-vessel composting leads to higher impacts because of the high electricity consumption. Landfill reduction has an economic advantage for all the scenarios, except for the business-as-usual, with life cycle costs 11–75% lower than for the current situation. While future scenarios improve the overall sustainability compared to the current situation, halving food waste by 2030 can save 15 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the best treatment scenario without waste reduction. Therefore, any commitments to improve the sustainability of food waste treatment must be accompanied by an effective waste prevention strategy. The outcomes of this work can help waste treatment operators and policy makers towards more sustainable food waste management. Although the focus is on UK situation, the overall conclusions and recommendations are applicable to other regions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number135580
Pages (from-to)135580
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date18 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 25 Mar 2020


  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Food waste
  • In-vessel composting
  • Incineration
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Life cycle costing


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