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Is the US economy dematerializing? Main indicators and drivers

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Dematerialization is a term that has become popular without significant analytic content. The simplest measures are inputs to the economy, namely the production and consumption of raw material commodities (including fuels). The authors have compiled the major commodity flows in the US economy since 1900, in both mass and exergy terms. Based on these data (and notwithstanding some impressions to the contrary) the US economy is not "dematerializing", to any degree that has environmental significance. Since 1900 it has exhibited a slow and modest long-term increase in materials consumption per capita, except during the depression and WW II. The trends in regard to resource productivity (GDP per unit of materials consumption) are moderately increasing, overall. The authors discuss some of the underlying driving forces, including declining ore grades, increasing recovery efficiency, increasing product complexity, and so on. These commodity data exclude some massive indirect flows of unpriced materials, such as mine and agricultural wastes, that were never measured accurately and have been ignored until recently. On the other hand, the unpriced indirect material flows have much less environmental significance than is implied by the masses involved. Exergy is a measure that better reflects the potential for reactivity and environmental harm associated with mass flows. From this perspective, it is worthwhile discriminating between the materials used for construction of infrastructure, buildings and embodied in durable goods, on the one hand and materials that can be categorized as "consumable", on the other hand. The latter category includes food and feed, fuels, lubricants, soaps and detergents, solvents, fertilizers, and packaging materials. It is these dissipated materials that accounts for the bulk of harmful emissions to the environment. The authors argue that policy should focus not on reducing the total mass of materials consumed, but on reducing the need for consumables, especially intermediates.

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