Carefully answering these methodological questions is considered best practice in MFA. Ensuring transparency and reproducibility in the MFA research community involves pointing out the strengths and limitations of the approach and data used. It is a prerequisite for developing research strategies of individual research groups, research institutions, as well as research foundations.
However, the relevance of these methodological findings is not restricted to the research community. Also governments, NGOs, and industry associations have started to monitor various aspects of the physical economy. Answers to the questions laid out above are therefore highly relevant for informing the development of monitoring strategies. For example, the findings of MFAs can be used to identify relevant data gaps and effective ways to address them, either by using the mass balance principle, by making informed estimates, or by proposing new measurements or proposing amendments to existing measurement programmes. Another important aspect of monitoring strategies is data harmonisation. But most importantly, MFAs can facilitate the reflection about the scope of monitoring programmes, including the identification of relevant aspects that should be monitored at different levels of granularity.
Strategies for system interventions (governance and business models)
MFAs are designed with many different purposes in mind, but most commonly to identify or describe problems related to the physical economy, to test alternative strategies for mitigating these problems, or to identify potential business opportunities. The relevance of MFA results is always limited by the system definition chosen. It is therefore critical that the purpose of the model is stated explicitly and upfront, and that it is aligned with the system definition. The MFA component at the top of the pyramid (“strategy and decision support”) hould therefore not be considered the last one, but rather the first and the last, with the first one (purpose, scope) informing the base of the pyramid (system definition).
MFA results cannot provide policy makers and industry representatives with meaningful strategies. The problems typically analysed in MFAs are too complex, and cannot be solved by one scientific discipline alone. Policy-prescriptive interpretations of the results are therefore not consistent with the scientific principles. Nevertheless, MFAs can inform decisions and strategies with relevant findings. The art of interpreting MFA findings is therefore to be policy- (and business-) relevant while avoiding to be policy-prescriptive.
MFAs are also poorly suited to distinguish between “good” and “bad” solutions or outcomes or to blame specific actors for certain phenomena. Changes in the physical economy may involve aspects that are desired by some actors and undesired by others. What we perceive
as problems is usually generated by the entire system involving many stakeholders that are all linked with each other through the physical economy. On the other side, MFAs are well suited to facilitate the reflection about complex multi-stakeholder problems (how different processes and stakeholders are linked with each other through the physical economy) and how they can be addressed most effectively through multi-stakeholder interventions.
MFAs can inform government and industry strategies in many ways:
- MFAs can demonstrate where materials are “lost” or ineffectively used along the supply chain, and thereby point out the largest potentials for resource recovery and recycling. This information is highly relevant for informing strategies related to resource management, circular economy, or (critical) raw materials supply. Whether or not governments or businesses should focus on the recovery of these resources, however, may be determined by many other factors that are out of scope.
- MFAs have been developed to forecast future scrap availability. This information can be relevant for informing investments in new recycling facilities or the development of new sorting technologies needed to separate different fractions of the scrap.
- Other MFAs have been developed to forecast demand for certain materials. This information is relevant for investments into mining and production of these materials.
- Some MFAs for individual materials have been linked to models of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, which allowed the model developers to develop scenarios for greenhouse gas emission in these sectors, and to test the effectiveness of alternative intervention options for overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
These examples illustrate that MFAs have a potential for informing strategies, among others for resource management and circular economy, critical raw material supply, climate change, and investments. Since many of the great problems of humanity today are linked with each other through the physical economy, MFA has also a great potential to inform strategies that aim at simultaneously addressing several sustainable development goals.