Martin Lopatka/Flickr via Creative Commons

A new report—a collaborative effort by researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the University of Sydney, and the University of California, Santa Barbara—recently published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" reveals that raw material consumption far exceeds previous estimates.

"Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and water," said Tommy Wiedmann, an associate professor of sustainability research at UNSW's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the report's lead author, in a university news release. "By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to see the true extent of resource consumption."

The primary flaw in the conventional assessment methods is the equation of the physical quantity of traded goods with that of raw materials. As anyone with a basic expertise in material sustainability knows, the ecological rucksack—or the total amount of material required to harvest and process a finished product—typically far outweighs the amount of material in the product.

The publication authors utilize a new indicator called a "material footprint" to establish more accurate estimates of global raw material consumption. By applying the new measurement, they determined that 70 billion metric tons of raw materials were consumed in 2008—compared with 10 billion tons that were physically traded. Moreover, three times as many resources were required just to process and export these materials.

Other selected findings include:

  • China's material footprint in 2008, the largest in the world, was twice that of the United States and four times that of Japan and India.
  • Construction materials constitute 60 percent of China's material footprint.
  • China is the leading exporter of primary resources and the U.S. is the leading importer.
  • Australia exhibits the highest material footprint per capita.
  • Only South Africa has been able to decouple raw material usage from economic growth; all other industrialized nations have increased their resource use parallel with their GDPs.

Photo used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Martin Lopatka.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.