Many methods have been reported and used to include recycling in life cycle assessments (LCAs). This paper evaluates six widely used methods: three substitution methods (i.e. substitution based on equal quality, a correction factor, and alternative material), allocation based on the number of recycling loops, the recycled-content method, and the equal-share method. These six methods were first compared, with an assumed hypothetical 100% recycling rate, for an aluminium can and a disposable polystyrene (PS) cup. The substitution and recycled-content method were next applied with actual rates for recycling, incineration and landfilling for both product systems in selected countries. The six methods differ in their approaches to credit recycling. The three substitution methods stimulate the recyclability of the product and assign credits for the obtained recycled material. The choice to either apply a correction factor, or to account for alternative substituted material has a considerable influence on the LCA results, and is debatable. Nevertheless, we prefer incorporating quality reduction of the recycled material by either a correction factor or an alternative substituted material over simply ignoring quality loss. The allocation-on-number-of-recycling-loops method focusses on the life expectancy of material itself, rather than on a specific separate product. The recycled-content method stimulates the use of recycled material, i.e. credits the use of recycled material in products and ignores the recyclability of the products. The equal-share method is a compromise between the substitution methods and the recycled-content method. The results for the aluminium can follow the underlying philosophies of the methods. The results for the PS cup are additionally influenced by the correction factor or credits for the alternative material accounting for the drop in PS quality, the waste treatment management (recycling rate, incineration rate, landfilling rate), and the source of avoided electricity in case of waste incineration. The results for the PS cup, which are less dominated by production of virgin material than aluminium can, furthermore depend on the environmental impact categories. This stresses the importance to consider other impact categories besides the most commonly used global warming impact. The multitude of available methods complicates the choice of an appropriate method for the LCA practitioner. New guidelines keep appearing and industries also suggest their own preferred method. Unambiguous ISO guidelines, particularly related to sensitivity analysis, would be a great step forward in making more robust LCAs.
- Life cycle assessment (LCA)