(How) can we make money from waste? 3D-Thinking about profitability

“Is ELFM profitable?”

What a FAQ?! It is such a frequently asked question about Enhanced Landfill Mining (ELFM) and I even remember asking the same when I started my PhD two years ago. But until now, my answer is the cliché, it depends.  However, I think I made a bit of a progress in structuring my thoughts. So here is my 3D framework for assessing the economic potential of ELFM:

3D framework for assessing the economic potential of ELFM

3D framework for assessing the economic potential of ELFM

Sustainability perspective

The three pillars of sustainability are economic, environmental and social. So in assessing the economics of ELFM, it depends on how broad is the applied sustainability perspective. Based on the code of practice in life cycle costing (LCC) by Swarr et al. (2011), it could be classified as conventional (C-LCC), environmental (E-LCC), or social (LCC). These are coined by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, a recognized group that develops sustainability assessment methods and tools. C-LCC is about pure financial accounting as in business accounting and techno-economic assessment; E-LCC includes monetized environmental gains/deficits; and S-LCC includes monetized impacts on human health and welfare, among others.

Reiterating my testimonial on the previously held ELFM seminar at the European Parliament, there is a need for a shared sustainability perspective among the stakeholders to be able to have a common understanding of the value of ELFM. Broader sustainability perspective could capture wider societal potential. However, it also entails a challenge when it comes to the complexity of monetization.

Object of analysis

Several goals for assessing the economics of ELFM direct scenario development by varying certain conditions. According to Laner et al. (2016), these conditions can be classified at different levels such as site, project and system.

  • Site-level conditions include waste composition, landfill size, etc.;
  • project-level conditions include technology set-up for separation and thermal treatment processes, and organizational set-up whether these processes are done internally or externally; and
  • system-level conditions include policies and regulations such as re-landfilling tax and required alternative landfill management.

Since previous studies are mostly case-study specific and that they considered different objects of analysis, it is difficult to come up with generalized economic results (Esguerra et al., 2018). Maybe a poor waste composition is selected, or expensive landfill tax is already in place, among others, which would definitely pre-set an economically challenging ELFM scenario. These type of results are rather deterministic, and not learning-oriented. Exploration of simultaneous variation of conditions at all levels is called for, to account the relative importance of such conditions, and to systematically determine what actually constitutes a profitable ELFM scenario.

Emerging character

Technological advancement varies widely within and among ELFM processes such as separation, thermal treatment and further residue valorization. This advancement leads to improvement in respective efficiencies of the aforementioned processes. However, advanced processes do not assure profitability. Sophisticated technologies are more expensive, which may not be compensated by the revenues from recovered materials and energy. With current market conditions, only ferrous and nonferrous metals are of high value relative to other material fractions such as RDF and other aggregates, which can end up to be re-landfilled. Along the ELFM process chain, emerging character of the technologies is observed. Assessment issues regarding upscaling and data estimation are also uncertainties that needs to be addressed.

As a clarification, this 3D framework does not guarantee a favorable profitability as one considers an ELFM scenario that falls farther away from the origin. The message is rather to acknowledge the need for stating a clear context of assessment to avoid misinterpretation of results by various stakeholders. On another note, “Is ELFM profitable?” may not be an interesting question after all, but instead How to make ELFM profitable?”. This corresponds to a shift from a deterministic yes/no question to a learning-oriented one, considering the scenario uncertainties in technological development, market dynamics, regulatory requirements, and land use demand, among others. At the moment, we have developed a generic approach that allows systematic determination of critical factors for the economic performance of landfill mining. It is definitely a learning-oriented one, and I cannot wait to share it with you once it is published. So, wait for my next blog!


– Esguerra, J.L., Krook, J., Svensson, N., Van Passel, S. 2018. Is enhanced landfill mining profitable? International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) 2018 World Congress, 22-25 October, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, pp 240-245.
– Laner, D., Cencic, O., Svensson, N., & Krook, J. (2016). Quantitative Analysis of Critical Factors for the Climate Impact of Landfill Mining. Environmental Science & Technology, 50(13), 6882–6891.
– Swarr, T., Hunkeler, D., Klopffer, W., Pesonen, H.-L., Ciroth, A., Brent, A., & Pagan, R. (2011). Environmental life cycle costing : a code of practice. Pensacola: Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.


About the Author:

Jay-el hails from the sunny Philippines and now residing in chilly Sweden. He has also lived in several parts of Europe such as The Netherlands and Belgium as part of his study and research mobility. He misses Philippine mangoes and white sand beaches, but he also enjoys Swedish meatballs and glacial lakes. His passion for sustainability was honed by taking the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Industrial Ecology. He is currently taking a Double Doctorate Degree in Sustainable Systems and Applied Economics between Linköping University in Sweden and University of Antwerp in Belgium, respectively. His research topic is about the techno-economic and multi-criteria assessments of enhanced landfill mining concepts and technologies.