This paper describes the context, the basic assumptions and the main findings of a joint research project aimed at identifying the optimal breakdown between material recovery and energy recovery from municipal solid waste (MSW) in the framework of integrated waste management systems (IWMS). The project was carried out from 2007 to 2009 by five research groups at Politecnico di Milano, the Universities of Bologna and Trento, and the Bocconi University (Milan), with funding from the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR).
Since the optimization of IWMSs by analytical methods is practically impossible, the search for the most attractive strategy was carried out by comparing a number of relevant recovery paths from the point of view of mass and energy flows, technological features, environmental impact and economics. The main focus has been on mature processes applicable to MSW in Italy and Europe.
Results show that, contrary to a rather widespread opinion, increasing the source separation level (SSL) has a very marginal effects on energy efficiency. What does generate very significant variations in energy efficiency is scale, i.e. the size of the waste-to-energy (WTE) plant. The mere value of SSL is inadequate to qualify the recovery system. The energy and environmental outcome of recovery depends not only on “how much” source separation is carried out, but rather on “how” a given SSL is reached.