The growing concern for environmental problems in the current economy has spurred the study of the way materials and substances flow through the economy, resulting in many different types of analysis. Since all of these have their merits and shortcomings, much of the present theoretical research seems to be focusing oil combining the best aspects of each model type into an integrated model. The aim of this paper is to make a first step in bridging the gap between the various types of analysis of material flows in the economy, by discussing the main differences and similarities of three often employed model types: substance flow analysis, life cycle assessment and partial economic equilibrium analysis. Instead of submitting each model to a lengthy theoretical discussion, we apply them to a single, hypothetical example of a pollution problem. By doing so we are able to evaluate the differences and similarities of the methods and results of the model in a practical way. It appears that the results of the three models are complementary rather than contradictory. Each of them puts an emphasis on different aspects of 'the real world'. A sequential application of a number of limited models may therefore be an approach that provides more useful information than the tedious construction and application of an encompassing model that integrates these models. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.