The globally growing demand to produce more food with fewer inputs, less energy, and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions challenges current agricultural practices. Recycled fertilizers made of various side streams and types of biomass have been developed mainly to improve nutrient recycling in food systems. However, the knowledge of the impacts of different recycled fertilizers on GHG emissions and energy use is lacking. There is also a need for developing environmental assessment methods for quantifying the impacts of recycling processes, particularly in terms of choosing reasonable methods for co-product allocation.
The aims of this study were to address the above mentioned research gaps by i) assessing energy use and GHG emissions of various recycled fertilizers, ii) comparing the recycled fertilizers with mineral fertilizers, and iii) comparing the impacts of using different co-product allocation methods for the recycled fertilizers. Attributional Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was used for estimating energy use and GHG emissions of recycled fertilizers, including ammonium sulfate, biogas digestate, and meat and bone meal, using kg of nitrogen in the fertilizers as a functional unit. In addition, the energy use and GHG emissions of oat production when using the recycled and mineral fertilizers were quantified. The data were obtained from field experiments, LCA databases, published literature, and fertilizer companies.
The life-cycle energy consumption and GHG emissions of recycled fertilizers were found to be lower than that of mineral fertilizer, but also differences between recycled fertilizer products were notable. The biggest differences between fertilizers occurred in manufacturing and transportation.
However, this conclusion is highly sensitive to several decisions, such as data sources and LCA methods used. Handling the raw materials of recycled fertilizers as by-products instead of residues adds burdens from primary production to fertilizers. Also handling the materials as waste increases the impacts due to burdens from the recycling process. Since the raw materials of fertilizers have only little economic value, applying economic allocation results to significantly lower impacts than mass allocation.
Consequential LCA studies would be needed to improve the understanding of the wider impacts of recycled fertilizers, e.g. considering the benefits of avoided waste management processes. (C) 2020 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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