Progress toward environmentally sustainable industrial economies clearly will require reducing the volume of the hidden material flows that precede industrial processes – the front end of the industrial materials cycle – rather than just cleaning up the wastes that result from actual production. This has important implications for environmental policies. For example, it makes the benefits of recycling quite clear. Every ton of iron recycled not only replaces a ton that would have been mined but also avoids the creation of several tons of mine tailings or overburden, as well as ore-processing wastes.
|What do industrial economies use?|
|Primary contributions to the total material requirements of selected economies, 1991|
|Source: A. Adriaanse et al., Resource Flows: The Material Basis of Industrial Economies, a joint publication of the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Wuppertal Institute, the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment, and the National Institute for Environmental Studies (WRI, Washington, D.C., 1997), p 12.|
Yet not everything can be recycled. Coal or oil, for instance, can be burned only once. Unfortunately, fossil fuels and the hidden material flows associated with them make up a large percentage – between 26 and 46 percent – of the total materials used in the most industrialized countries. (See What Do Industrial Economies Use?) This means that reducing fossil fuel use is crucial to reducing the total impact of industrial production, in addition to the other global benefits such a reduction would bring in terms of improved air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Likewise, more sustainable cultivation methods are essential to stem the significant soil loss associated with modern intensive agricultural systems. Erosion, for example, accounts for 17 percent of the total materials requirement of the United States. This number has come down in recent years largely because the United States instituted a policy