Environmental sustainability of anaerobic digestion of household food waste

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    Consumers are the leading producers of food waste (FW) in developed countries and the majority of household FW is still embedded in general waste where it is incinerated or landfilled. There is increasing awareness in the value of collecting FW as a separate waste stream for production of compost or recovery of energy through anaerobic digestion (AD). This study focuses on AD to evaluate the life cycle environmental sustainability of recovering energy and fertilisers from household FW in the UK. The analysis is carried out for two different functional units: i) treatment of 1 tonne of FW, which is compared to incineration and landfilling; and ii) generation of 1 MWh of electricity, which is compared to other electricity generation options. The former results in net negative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (–39 kg CO2-eq./t) and primary energy demand (–2 GJ/t) due to the displacement of grid electricity and mineral fertilisers. AD has lower impacts than both incineration and landfilling across 15 of the 19 impacts. However, the application of digestate to land and the release of ammonia and nitrates lead to higher marine eutrophication (ME), terrestrial acidification (TA) and particulate matter formation (PMF). For the second functional unit, AD electricity emits 203 kg CO2-eq./MWh, compared to 357 kg CO2-eq./MWh for the UK grid mix. Compared to renewables, such as wind and solar, AD electricity has lower energy demand, toxicity potentials and metal depletion. However, it has higher global warming potential, ME, TA and PMF. At the UK level, treating 4.9 Mt of kerbside FW collected annually could provide 0.37% of the national electricity demand and save 190,000 t CO2-eq./yr compared to the grid electricity. The digestate produced could displace 1% of industrial nitrogen fertilisers. Although small fractions of the national demands, they represent a valuable return from a largely unutilised waste stream and help towards implementation of a circular economy.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)798-814
    Number of pages16
    JournalJournal of Environmental Management
    Early online date15 Feb 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2019


    • anaerobic digestion
    • biogas
    • food waste
    • life cycle assessment
    • waste management
    • circular economy


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