A recent World Resources Materials Flow report* tracks the ebb and flow of how stuff goes through our economy and out into the environment . For example of these 169 materials are toxic substances— such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and others—whose life cycle, reflect the strengths and weaknesses in our national regulatory policies and procedures.
According this study the U.S. showed more efficient use of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, and renewable resources. However, the trend in per capita consumption of material (a coincident indicator) is increasing, with a rise of some 23 percent over the study period. If the U.S. economy were solidly on a path to sustainability, this indicator would be declining.
The total consumption of materials (a lagging indicator) grew 57 percent over the study period, to 6.5 billion metric tons in 2000. If the United States had been a sustainable economy during this period, we would have avoided the creation of 25 billion tons of waste (and its subsequent disposal into our air and water and onto our land).
This report documents the challenges of our time is improved resource management and to shift to environmentally preferable materials. Meeting this challenge will require new processes and increasingly complex, far-reaching partnerships among government, business, and civil society. Material flows accounting can provide the common scorecard that all the parties need to facilitate these collaborations and make them in the fure more successful.
This is the third report, focuses on the United States and accounts of material flows from 1975 to 2000. It presents the accounts in aggregate and by economic sector, examines specific flows of environmental or economic importance, and recommends next steps.
1. Consumption. In absolute terms, total material consumption increased from 1975 to 2000 by 57 percent to 6.5 billion metric tons in 2000. Per capita consumption increased by 23 percent. The majority of growth can be explained by an 83 percent increase in built infrastructure of materials associated with industrial development.
This report documents a national increase of 52 percent in the number of housing units and a greater intensity of material use per housing according to U.S. Census Bureau findings from 1975 to 2000.
2. Material Efficiency. While both total and per capita consumption of materials increased between 1975 and 2000, consumption declined relative to GDP by 31 percent. This gain in efficiency is attributable to a general dematerialization in the U.S. economy: 84 percent of the absolute growth in GDP during the study period was in the services sector.
3. Material Outputs. Nearly 2.7 billion metric tons of materials were returned to the environment as waste (outputs) in 2000. Total outputs have increased by 26 percent since 1975, and the most environmentally harmful outputs—synthetic and persistent organic chemicals, radioactive compounds, and heavy metals—have increased by 24 percent to 16 million metric tons. While many policies to control point-source and industrial pollution levels have curbed hazardous releases into the environment, toxic releases from diffuse sources such as imported consumer electronics have increased. For example, more than 60 percent of the cadmium consumed in 2000 was contained in imported batteries. Only 32 percent of all cadmium was recycled in 2000.
4. International Comparisons. Per capita material consumption in the United States is more than 50 percent higher than the average of 15 European Union countries. This difference could be due either to the presence of more extensive extractive
industries (e.g., mining and forestry) here.
Developing a system of national material accounts could enable more effective policymaking in both the public and private sectors. The establishment of a central organization—a Center for Material Flows—to manage the collection, analysis, and dissemination of material flows accounts in the United States. Also established a materials accounting framework to fully capture the physical and chemical changes observed in materials and expand and synthesize core data across the life cycle of a material. Finally integrate such material flows analysis into environmental and economic decision-making. Because material flows accounts track the movement of goods into and out of the economy, they can be used as early warning indicators of potential threats to human health and undesirable changes in natural resources.
Certainly the U.S. will prosper by improved material flow accounting to track where everything comes from and where it goes!
* DONALD ROGICH, AMY CASSARA, IDDO WERNICK, MARTA MIRANDA, MATERIAL FLOWS IN THE UNITED STATES, 2008,WRI:ISBN 978-1-56973-682-1 http://materials.wri.org.