How to Calculate Carbon (CO2) Emissions from Waste

Every company, household, and individual produces waste in various forms, including trash, food waste, recycling, compost, wastewater, and other byproducts. In the United States, the average person generates around 4.5 lbs (2 kg) of waste per person per day. Companies generate waste at even greater scale, and waste should be a key sustainability KPI and area to target for any business looking to improve its climate impact and reputation.

It's also important to remember waste has an emissions impact on your company's carbon accounting, often a significant one. According to the EPA: "Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. As a business, waste likely accounts for between 10-20% of your organization's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Waste prevention programs also offer valuable opportunities to not only reduce your organization's emissions, but also cut operational costs associated with waste disposal and even raw materials. For example, brands like Nike and Adidas have started making certain shoes from recycled materials that can then be returned and recycled into future footwear.

How to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of Waste

The most common destination for discarded waste is a landfill (53%) or incineration (13%). Waste may also be incenerated and converted to power at a waste-to-energy facility. All of these process release carbon and other GHG emissions. Even recycling requires energy usage at the recycling facility to process materials for re-use.

Waste by Disposal Type

Source: US EPA, University of Michigan, and Brightest

For example, disposing 1 metric ton of waste in a landfill requires an average of 1.8 kg of fuel to transport the waste, 8 kWh of electricity, 1kg of plastic liner material (HDPE), and up to 100kg of dirt or gravel. In the United States, this equates to:

1 kg of U.S. landfill waste = 3.5kg of CO2e

Only composting provides a method of waste disposal that generates effectively zero net new emissions. Moreover, waste that isn't composted or recycled often ends up as harmful environmental pollution, including plastic in the ocean, chemical contamination, and incinerator smog.

The more thoughtful and environmentally-minded we are about our largest sources of waste, the more we can support healthy natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

Calculating and Categorizing Waste Emissions in Carbon Accounting

The standard measurement unit for waste emissions is CO2e or "carbon equivalents." In emissions measurement, waste emissions are counted as Scope 3 emissions, based on the Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions categories established by Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Waste generated from your operations falls under the Scope 3 category "Emissions from waste," while your customer's waste from using your products should be allocated to the Scope 3 category "End-of-life treatment of products."

To measure the emissions of your waste, you'll need to collect data for your organization's:

  • All your different waste types
  • Waste volume or weights by type
  • Where your waste gets disposed of
  • An emissions factor for each waste type

To give you some helpful and hopefully time-saving calculation inputs, a typical roll-cart trash can holds 65-95 gallons (~80 gallons on average) of trash when full. And a typical dumpster holds ~2 cubic yards of waste. If you know how often you take out your trash, or how full your dumpster is when the trash gets picked up every week, you can start to estimate your waste volume if you don't have the resources to weigh your trash.

If you want to automate this process further, just enter or upload your monthly waste types and amounts in our award-winning sustainability reporting software, and we'll automatically calculate and visualize your waste emissions in CO2e.

Carbon Calculator for Waste Emissions

Brightest offers modern carbon accounting software to automatically calculate emissions from waste and all your other emissions sources

Most modern water meters also support automated meter reading (AMR) sent via radio. Some are even connected to the internet. In terms of getting water data, if you don't have direct access to the meter, try talking to the building owner. There are also affordable apps, tools, and converters that can help you collect and digitize AMR meter data electronically.

Why Tracking and Reducing Waste is so Important for Sustainability

As we've hopefully already explained, tracking and reducing your organization's waste provides numerous financial and environmental benefits:

  • Reducing waste via operational process efficiency and circularity can also generate meaningful cost savings
  • Many types of waste byproducts can be converted into new revenue streams. There are growing markets for recycled metals, organic waste, and many other materials that can help power the circular economy or be re-used as product inputs
  • Lowering your waste also reduces your organization's Scope 3 carbon emissions
  • Better waste management also reduces compliance and regulatory risk as more states and countries introduce environmental legislation around waste disposal requirements and limits

Ultimately, waste is one of the most tangible, visual areas of sustainability. How you design your organization's waste strategy across product design, facilities, operations, supply chain, HR, and other areas of your business can have a major impact on the volumes, types, and ultimate destination(s) for the waste your company produces. Spend a few months researching, gathering data, and measuring a baseline for your waste, then work with your teammates to set targets and identify material ways to reduce, re-use, and recycle.

Whichever methods and strategies you choose to target and improve your organization's waste footprint, remember that the relationship between waste, water, energy, and climate change presents us with important opportunities to better manage some of our most valuable natural resources.

As always, if we can be helpful to you or your organization’s sustainability journey, please be in touch.