This paper reviews databases on material recycling (primary as well as secondary production) used in life cycle assessments (LCA) of waste management systems. A total of 366 datasets, from 1980 to 2010 and covering 14 materials, were collected from databases and reports. Totals for CO2-equivalent emissions were compared to illustrate variations in the data. It was hypothesised that emissions from material production and the recycling industry had decreased over time due to increasing regulation, energy costs and process optimisation, but the reported datasets did not reveal such a general trend. Data representing the same processes varied considerably between databases, and proper background information was hard to obtain, which in turn made it difficult to explain the large differences observed. Those differences between the highest and lowest estimated CO2 emissions (equivalents) from the primary production of newsprint, HDPE and glass were 238%, 443% and 452%, respectively. For steel and aluminium the differences were 1761% and 235%, respectively. There is a severe lack of data for some recycled materials; for example, only one dataset existed for secondary cardboard. The study shows that the choice of dataset used to represent the environmental load of a material recycling process and credited emissions from the avoided production of virgin materials is crucial for the outcome of an LCA on waste management. Great care and a high degree of transparency are mandatory, but advice on which datasets to use could not be determined from the study. However, from the gathered data, recycling in general showed lower emission of CO2 per kg material than primary production, so the recycling of materials (considered in this study) is thus beneficial in most cases.
Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 2014, Vol 87, p. 30-45