Worldwatch Paper #121: The Next Efficiency Revolution: Creating a Sustainable Materials Economy

September 1994
John E. Young and Aaron Sachs
ISBN: 1-878071-22-X
58 pages

Consumer societies can no longer avoid confronting the inefficiency with which they use materials, according to a new Worldwatch Institute study. An overhaul of the materials economy--redesigning products and processes and reducing waste--would create millions of new jobs, while reducing the production of toxic waste and a range of other environmental problems.

The report, The Next Efficiency Revolution: Creating a Sustainable Materials Economy, by John E. Young and Aaron Sachs, is a blueprint for spurring materials-conserving design, reuse and recycling.

"Though environmental policy makers have focused on the growing glut of garbage and pollution, most of the environmental damage is done before materials ever reach the consumer. Just four primary materials industries-- paper, plastics, chemicals, and metals--account for 71 percent of the toxic emissions from manufacturing in the United States, according to the researchers. Five materials--paper, steel, aluminum, plastics, and container glass--account for 31 percent of U.S. manufacturing energy use."

Among the signs of progress identified by the new study:

The number of U.S. curbside pickup programs for recyclable grew from 1,042 in 1988 to 6,678 in 1993.

The Chicago Board of Trade, one of the world's premiere commodities markets, will begin formally trading secondary materials in early 1995.

The German government's requirement that manufacturers take responsibility for their products has virtually eliminated some types of packaging.

Thirteen U.S. states have set minimum recycled-content standards for newsprint, and 15 more have negotiated voluntary agreements with newspapers. In 1988, there were only nine newsprint recycling plants in North America; now there are 29.

The World Bank is now supporting Lanais Ganda--"Clean and Beautiful"--a Manila-based network of scavengers who comb the city's trash for reusable items. Thanks to the program, hundreds of people have been able to establish small businesses.

The study identifies the enormous appetite of industrial economies for materials--including metals, granite, wood products, and plastics--as one of the leading threats to the planet's ecosystems. Total U.S. consumption of virgin raw materials was 17 times greater in 1989 than it was in 1900, a span during which the country's population grew just a little over threefold.

"With world population increasing at a rate of 90 million (more than one Germany) annually, and consumer aspirations rising, society's current appetite for raw materials is so great that even the most sophisticated waste recovery techniques would not be able to feed it," the study finds. "We would still be forced to extract an unsustainable harvest of virgin resources."

Residents of the industrialized world comprise only about 20 percent of the global population, yet they consume 85 percent of the world's aluminum, 81 percent of its paper, 80 percent of its iron and steel, and 76 percent of its lumber, according to Young and Sachs.

To reduce pollution and stimulate economic development, the authors recommend shifting from primary industries to greater reliance on recycling, repairing, and remanufacturing businesses. Such a shift, they argue, would bring new economic opportunities. The biggest payoff: an increase in jobs. Industries founded on secondary materials will allow pioneering companies to open up entirely new economic sectors.

Recycling is growing rapidly in many industrialized countries, say Young and Sachs, but governments need to go further by promoting efficient design of consumer products, buildings, and entire communities, and by encouraging greater substitution of recovered materials for virgin minerals, timber, and agricultural products. "Instead of defining success as getting the most materials, we need to move to a new standard: getting the most from them."

Recycling 60 percent of U.S. solid waste could save the energy equivalent of 315 million barrels of oil each year, say Young and Sachs.

In the past, the study reports, raw materials prices have remained artificially low because governments have not factored in environmental costs. In addition, government subsidies often promote raw extraction. But Young and Sachs argue that governments could provide strong incentives not to degrade the resource base in the first place by raising prices to more realistic levels--by forcing industries to cover the full environmental costs of their activities instead of leaving the bill for the public to pay.

These reforms, if accompanied by reductions in the taxes levied on workers and their incomes, and by efforts to help industries convert to cleaner activities, would be relatively painless. Moreover, the money saved by governments could be used to spur the development of a reuse, recycling, repair, and remanufacturing infrastructure.

One of the keys to a less materials-intensive economy, according to the study, is redesigning consumer products to make them lighter and more compact, as has already happened with computers and to some extent with cars. Equally important is a move away from "planned obsolescence" and toward a new generation of more durable and more easily repairable products.

The Worldwatch researchers envision an accompanying relocation of materials industries: "The mines of the future will be the cities, not virgin mountainsides; the timber lots will be old houses, not virgin forests; and steel mills will be located near the junk yards and other sites where raw material is available. While virgin materials will continue to be needed, they will only supplement recycled inputs, rather than vice versa."