Modelling end-of-life in the PEF approach

PRé is dedicating an article series to the PEF initiative of the European Commission, since we are involved as technical helpdesk. Today: end-of-life modelling with material or energy recovery, a hotly debated topic ever since LCA exists. The number of scientific papers discussing this topic is huge; Google scholar gives 64000 hits. The PEF approach seeks to end this discussion.

End-of-life modelling: why is there so much discussion about it?

In a nutshell, the problem is this: when a material is recycled, it flows from one product to the next. How should benefits and burdens of recycled material be allocated? To the first or the second product? The same problem occurs when products are incinerated with energy recovery: who gets the benefits of this energy, the product that is incinerated, which leads to energy generation, or the energy system that eliminates the waste?

There are more issues in end-of-life modelling that need to be considered and decided upon:

  • Recycled or reused material as input for production
  • Open-loop recycling
  • Downcycling, i.e. any differences in quality between the secondary material (the recycled or reused material) and the primary material (the virgin material)
  • Energy recovery, as both electricity and heat, resulting from waste incineration
  • Selection of virgin material being avoided
  • Selection of energy source being avoided

Any time there is reuse, recycling or energy recovery, we need to ask: who should get the credits and impacts of recovery? My product system? Or the upstream or downstream product system connected to mine through recovery?

The reason this is such a hotly debated topic is that large interests are at stake for industry and policy development. One option makes products that are recycled look good. The other makes products that use recycled materials look good.

Introducing the single Environmental Footprint end-of-life formula

The European Commission is determined to put an end to the discussion, and is using the Environmental Footprint initiative to do so. Consistent results and alignment of goals can only be guaranteed when a single formula is consistently applied within and between product groups.

The EC published an end-of-life formula in its PEF and OEF guide, see image below. The formula allocates the impacts and benefits of recycling (material recovery) equally between the producer using recycled input material and the producer of the product that was recycled: a 50/50 allocation split. The formula also takes downcycling into account, the decrease of quality of a secondary material compared to primary material. When waste is incinerated, the credits of heat and electricity recovery are fully accounted to the producer of the product that ends up in incineration. The European Commission provided specific guidance to the companies participating in this pilot phase on how to calculate this.

It is hoped that this guide will reduce discussion and will help create clarity about who gets the credits.

Moving forward with the end-of-life formula

This end-of-life formula is considered standard in the PEF initiative. Every pilot is following this formula as default for their baseline assessment. However, a few pilots are still testing alternative formulas, which is encouraged in the scope of the pilot phase. Since all pilot products use packaging, the Commission has established a cross-cutting working group on packaging to try to align the way packaging materials and their end-of-life are modelled and provide default data to be used.

For detailed information about how the end-of-life formula of the European Environmental Footprint initiative is defined, see the PEF or OEF guides in the Commission Recommendation of 9 April 2013: on the use of common methods to measure and communicate the life cycle environmental performance of products and organisations (2013/179/EU).

Everybody happy?

Well, yes and no. The mid-term conference on the Environmental Footprint pilot phase, with 200 attendees, seemed to be in agreement that standardisation is needed. However, there are concerns that the formula does not really reward recycling. So the discussion is, for the time being, still ongoing…

Learn more about PEF

If you want to learn more about our role in the PEF initiative, please contact us. See other episodes of this series:

Marisa Vieira

Director of Solutions

The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive."

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