This paper makes the case that employing Materials Flow Analysis as a tool for environmental policy has utility, and that this type of analysis addresses major environmental policy challenges.

Executive Summary

Material Flow Accounts: A Tool For Making Environmental Policy describes the utility and policy applications of material flow accounts (MFA) systems for data management. MFAs track the amount of materials cycling into the economy and entering the environment at all phases of a commodity's life cycle. This type of analysis addresses major environmental policy challenges including:

  • Tracking pollutants across environmental media
  • Measuring progress on strategic tools for national environmental quality
  • Facilitating communication among Federal offices and with the American public
  • Prioritizing areas for policy intervention

This policy brief provides a practical proposal for a national Material Flow Accounting framework for the United States. After summarizing initiatives over the last decade that illustrate the material flow approach to policy making, we describe the MFA database under development at WRI as well as the data template for organizing flow data from a wide range of sources for entry into the database. To show the relevance of MFAs to chemicals policy, we select five chemicals from an EPA list of Waste Minimization Priority Chemicals to provide examples of how Material Flow data can provide policy insight. The Brief concludes with suggestions for next steps in developing an infrastructure to build MFAs to firmly establish this policy tool and support broad public debate.

Materials Flows Database

WRI has developed a material flows accounting (MFA) database and associated protocols for collecting, analyzing, and presenting material flows data. The database systematically categorizes materials flowing through the U.S. economy, emphasizing transparency in documenting data sources and any assumptions made in estimating the flows. The ultimate goal for this activity is to see that the periodic compilation and dissemination of U.S. material flows accounts shifts from civil society to become an established function of the federal government.


This pilot MFA database is designed to cover the physical resources entering the economy and follow them as they undergo successive physical and chemical transformations as they move through the material life cycle. More than 190 commodities are included.

The database is structured around a list of the primary commodities that drive the U.S. economy, covering five principal resource sectors: agriculture, forestry, non-renewable organic materials (e.g., fossil fuels), metals, and minerals.

The entire chain of materials that flow through the U.S. industrial economy is included, from primary inputs, or feedstocks, such as petroleum, salt, and industrial roundwood, to processed materials such as benzene, gasoline, chlorine, and lumber.