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Journal article

Mixed-unit hybrid life cycle assessment applied to the recycling of construction materials

15 Jun 2018

The construction industry contributes around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of depletion of natural resources, and 25% of wastes globally. To reduce these impacts, construction industries can adopt low-carbon alternatives for construction materials and waste minimisation strategies, including the recycling of construction and demolition waste. However, a comprehensive understanding of the full life cycle carbon profle of low-carbon and recyclable construction materials is required to accurately assess the efcacy of decarbonisation strategies in the built environment. Despite recent progress in hybrid life cycle assessment (hybrid LCA) methods, some weaknesses remain with respect to the inherent uncertainty relating to price variations and aggregated sectors that are unable to provide detailed waste-specifc information in hybrid LCA. Furthermore, attributional, hybrid LCA for a functional unit does not refect the actual, economy-wide physical fows of materials in a real economy. In this study, a mixed-unit hybrid LCA approach based on a combination of process life cycle inventory, input–output, and material fow data is used to model the economy-wide potential use of recycled construction materials in Australia. A comparison between methods of life cycle emissions of geopolymer concrete revealed that the mixed-unit hybrid LCA approach produced a more accurate and Australian-specifc result. The usefulness of the proposed mixed-unit IO model is demonstrated through quantifying the cradle-togate embodied emissions of recycled construction materials and by-products utilised in concrete and steel sectors in Australia. The results yield a 1% reduction when recycled concrete aggregate completely replaces natural aggregate in both ordinary Portland cement and geopolymer concrete. Greenhouse gas emissions reduction of 30% is quantifed for geopolymer concrete using recycled concrete aggregate compared with ordinary Portland cement concrete utilising natural aggregate and 43% is estimated for electric arc furnace route using iron and steel scrap compared with basic oxygen furnace route. The method merges physical and monetary units of industrial systems related to low-carbon alternatives and recycled construction materials to enable the calculations of embodied carbon with improved accuracy. The results of this study can help inform decarbonisation strategies in the built environment sector.

Keywords: Hybrid LCA, Material fow analysis (MFA), Mixed-unit input–output model, Concrete, Steel, Recycling, Recycled concrete aggregate

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