Materials Use Up

Gary Gardner | Nov 18, 2010

Global use of materials—the food, feed, forest products, metals, and minerals that constitute the foundation of modern economies—was up 2.7 percent in 2007, the latest year for which global data are available.1 (See Table 1.) The 2007 pre-recession expansion was the fifth consecutive year of relatively robust global growth in materials use.2

Materials in the global economy broadly consist of two types: nonrenewables, which include construction minerals, industrial minerals, and metals, and renewables, typically the biomass harvested for feed, food, and forestry as well as animal products. (As defined here, materials do not include water, fossil fuels, or "unused" materials associated with extraction, such as the earth that is moved to get to mining ores or soils eroded in agricultural production.) Nonrenewables extraction was up 3.2 percent in 2007, while biomass extraction increased 1.9 percent.3

Materials use is a proxy indicator for environmental impact: the greater the tonnage of virgin materials extracted, processed, consumed, and disposed of, the greater an economy's environmental footprint. (The impact of one key set of materials — toxic substances such as mercury or cadmium — is often understated by tonnage measurements, however.  A ton of mercury, for example, could have much greater environmental or human impact than a ton of iron ore or timber.)


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