Worldwatch Briefing
"Raw Materials Use and the Environment"


Consumers, businesses, and governments around the world are finding ways to profit and prosper while simultaneously slashing their use of wood, metal, stone, plastic, and other materials, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. Such reductions will remove many contributors to global warming, species loss, air and water pollution, lead poisoning, and a long list of other environmental and health problems.

"Groups as different as neighborhood associations and corporations are discovering that economic well-being is not necessarily linked to using vast quantities of materials," notes Gary Gardner, senior researcher at Worldwatch and co-author with Payal Sampat of the report Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives. "In fact, getting more of what we want through smarter use of materials is a winner for the bottom line and the environment."

Some firms, including the Xerox Corporation and Interface Inc., a manufacturer of floor tiles, are now supplying customers with services, rather than making and selling goods. The companies lease their copiers and carpet tiles, taking the products back at the end of their useful lives for recycling or remanufacture. Their materials thus circulate much longer-requiring a minimum of virgin material and generating a minimum of waste.

The environmental and economic savings are impressive. Xerox reports a doubling of the share of machines that are remanufactured-to 28 percent-between 1992 and 1997. It expects to increase this share to 84 percent once a new copier series, designed for easy disassembly, is placed into service. Xerox estimates that its remanufacturing program diverted 30,000 tons from landfills in 1997 alone. Interface reports that landfilled factory wastes have been cut by 60 percent since 1995, and expects even greater savings from additional changes. The company achieved a 20 percent jump in sales and posted record sales between 1995 and 1996 - with virtually no increase in materials use.

Some companies minimize waste by selling it to other companies that use it for their own production. Whole clusters of industries are set up in this way, each linked by the waste flows of member firms. In Kalundborg, Denmark, a power plant, a cement factory, a farm, and several other industries share their wastes, an arrangement that diverts more than 1.3 million tons of waste from landfills or oceans each year. Similarly, in Fiji, a brewery, a mushroom farm, a chicken-raising farm, and a fish farm are tied together through flows of organic waste.

A few far-sighted governments have promoted more intelligent use of materials. In Germany, an ordinance adopted in the early 1990s holds producers responsible for nearly all the packaging waste they generate. Since that time, producers have cut their use of packaging by 17 percent, and recycling of remaining packaging has climbed 12 percent. Several countries, including Austria, France and Belgium, have adopted similar legislation.

Individuals have also pitched in to reduce their materials impact on the planet. A group called the Global Action Plan for the Earth has brought households together to discuss ways to reduce waste, to use less water and energy, and to buy "green" products. Participating in this Action Plan are 8,000 neighborhood teams in Europe and 3,000 teams in the United States. Successful teams send 42 percent less waste to landfills, use 25 percent less water, and generate 16 percent less carbon emissions, while saving $401 a year per household.

"These efforts point in the direction we should be going," says Payal Sampat, co-author of the report, "but we need to accelerate these material-conserving initiatives and get government policy behind them."

The sheer amount of material used today may astonish most people. "The average American uses at least 101 kilos (222 pounds) of materials every day, from the nitrogen and potash used to grow food, the wood in the daily paper, the chemicals in shampoo, and the gypsum in the office walls," adds Sampat. Heavy use of materials is a defining feature of the 20th century. Materials use has grown 18-fold in the United States since 1900. Substances such as aluminum and plastic were virtually unknown at the turn of the century. Since that time, aluminum production has climbed more than 3,000-fold, and synthetic chemicals production has increased 1,000 fold since 1930 in the United States alone.

If developing countries continue to embrace the industrial-country model of materials-intensive growth, the human impact on the natural world will only become more severe and widespread. Sustaining the whole world at an American or Canadian level of resource use would require the land area of three Earths.

The massive flows of materials this century already endanger human and environmental health at every step of the economic process, from extraction to production to waste disposal. Mining has contaminated more than 19,000 kilometers of rivers in the United States. The gold in a single wedding ring generates 3 tons of mining waste. Logging for wood products eliminates species habitat, contributing to what biologists agree is a mass extinction of species. Synthetic chemicals used in pesticides, solvents, and cleaning products are linked to health problems ranging from cancer to reproductive disorders in humans and animals. Metal emissions from factories have killed hundreds of thousands of hectares of Russian forests. China, with little capacity to process industrial wastes, has stockpiled 6 billion tons of it-5 tons for every Chinese man, woman, and child.

Materials contribute to climate change. Their production adds to atmospheric carbon-cement-making alone accounts for 5 percent of human-caused carbon emissions. Their extraction eliminates forests that absorb carbon-logging for wood threatens 70 percent of the world's untouched forests. Their disposal generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas-landfills account for 10 percent of global methane emissions.

"Governments can accelerate the trend toward reducing materials use by adopting policies that create incentives to diminish materials use," says Gardner. These policies include:

Facts About Our Material World

On the Science of Materials

On Materials Consumption

On Innovations to Increase Materials Efficiency

On Policies that Reduce Materials Use

On the Benefits of Increased Efficiency


Worldwatch Institute
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Washington, DC 20036
telephone: 202 452-1999
fax: 202 296-7365

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Vital Signs 1998
Worldwatch Press Release

World is Economically Richer and
Environmentally Poorer

The world today is economically richer and environmentally poorer than ever before, reports a new study of global trends from the Worldwatch Institute. In 1997, the global economy expanded at a near record 4 percent, pushing incomes to a new high with the biggest gains coming in developing countries.

"It was also a year of disturbing new signs of environmental stress," said Worldwatch president Lester Brown, lead author of Vital Signs 1998. "Indonesia's rainforests burned out of control for several months, irreversibly damaging one of the earth's richest ecosystems. China's Yellow River failed to reach the sea for 226 days, depriving farmers in its lower reaches of irrigation water. And the Earth's temperature reached yet another record high, providing further evidence that the world is warming."

And there were many surprises in 1997, Brown noted. New electrical generation capacity from wind exceeded that from nuclear power. India produced more wheat than the United States and two oil companies announced major investments in wind and solar energy. Vital Signs 1998: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, funded by the United Nations Population Fund, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation, reports on more than 50 environmentally related indicators, many of which are not covered regularly by the media.

At the end of 1997, we shared the Earth with 80 million more people than a year earlier, adding nearly another Sweden each month. Of this total, nearly 50 million were added in Asia, the region that is home to more than half of humanity. And cities are growing faster than ever. In 1800, London was the only city with a million people. Today there are 326 cities with at least a million people, 14 of which have populations greater than 10 million.

"The combination of population growth and rising incomes are increasing stresses on the natural world," said Brown, "starting with the Earth's climate." Carbon emissions, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and the Earth's average temperature climbed to record highs in 1997. Carbon emissions in 1997 totaled 6.3 billion tons, up from the 6.2 billion tons of 1996. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 climbed to 364 parts per million-the highest in 160,000 years.

With the record temperature set in 1997, the 14 warmest years since recordkeeping began in 1866 have all occurred since 1979. Evidence of the warming can be seen in melting icecaps in the Andes, shrinking glaciers in the Alps, and the breakup of the sea ice around Antarctica.

"There are clear signs that global corporations and governments are beginning to respond to these climate and energy problems," said Senior Vice President Christopher Flavin. With the commitment of $1 billion and $500 million, respectively, by British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell to the development of wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources, these leading oil companies are, in effect, becoming energy companies.

"From a commercial point of view, it is not too surprising that oil companies are turning to renewable energy resources," said Flavin. "During the 1990s, sales of coal and oil have grown just over 1 percent a year, while wind power has grown 26 percent a year. And sales of solar cells, averaging 15 percent annually from 1990 through 1996, jumped by a phenomenal 43 percent in 1997."

In the energy-intensive transportation sector, worldwide annual production of passenger cars set a new record. Auto manufacturers also unveiled several fuel-efficient, low-pollution models, including Toyota's Prius. In many parts of the world, bicycles are gaining in popularity. As a result, more than 100 million bicycles now come off the assembly lines each year, compared with fewer than 40 million automobiles.

Several countries in Europe are systematically increasing bicycle use. In Danish and Dutch cities, an estimated 20 percent and 30 percent respectively of all trips are taken by bicycle. Bikes are also strongly encouraged in Germany, where use has increased by 50 percent over the last two decades.

On the food front, the world's farmers harvested a record 1,881 million tons of grain in 1997, narrowly eclipsing 1996's record harvest of 1,869 million tons. However, even this record harvest did not keep up with population growth, leading to a drop in per capita grain output from 324 kilograms to 322 kilograms.

Along with land scarcity, water scarcity is now emerging as a serious constraint on efforts to expand world food production. Growth in irrigated area is falling behind population growth, leading to a steady shrinkage in irrigated area per person. In China, the Yellow River, the northernmost of China's two major rivers, was drained dry by withdrawals from upstream provinces, failing to make it to the sea for 226 days out of 365.

Population growth is not the only source of increasing demand for food. Perhaps the dominant distinguishing feature of dietary changes over the last half-century has been the growing appetite for animal protein as incomes climbed. This hunger for protein has spurred an increase in the world fish catch of nearly fivefold, boosting it from 19 million tons in 1950 to 93 million tons today. The production of meat (beef, pork and poultry) has climbed from 44 million tons in 1950 to 211 million tons in 1997, raising consumption per person from 17 to 36 kilograms.

The enormous growth in human numbers and economic activity has had its most visible effect on the earth's forests. Between 1980 and 1995, the world lost at least 200 million hectares of forest-an area larger than the cropland area of the United States. Among the more disturbing developments in 1997 was the uncontrolled burning of Indonesia's rainforests, filling the region's air with smoke so intense that it left millions physically sick. The fires also led to the cancellation of 1,100 airline flights, and a precipitous drop in tourism earnings.

One of the consequences of the destruction of forests and other habitats is the accelerating loss of species. A recent study estimates that 11 percent of all bird species are threatened with extinction. For fish, the figure reaches 34 percent. In the U.S. Colorado River basin, 29 of 50 native fish species are either endangered or already extinct. Among the 233 species of primates, half are now threatened with extinction. The surviving populations of some primate species are measured in the hundreds.

One of the more dramatic areas of growth in 1997 was in telecommunications. The Internet has more than doubled in size in each year in the 1990s. Of the 100 million or so people online, more than half are in the United States, with most of the rest in Canada, Europe, and Japan. The rest of the world lags behind, with only 8 percent of Internet users, but other countries are catching up. The number of people online in China and India, for example, is projected to multiply 15-fold by the year 2000. The Internet can bring many benefits to developing countries, such as telemedicine and health care education, improving rural access to global markets, and linking local activists with supporters overseas.

Telephone access is also expanding rapidly. New telephone hookups are increasing 7 percent a year, reaching 740 million in 1996. The number of telephones per 100 people varies widely among countries. The United States, for example, has 60 phones per 100 people, while China has 4. But this gap is now narrowing as the number of telephones in developing countries is increasing by 19 percent a year.

Educational levels are rising worldwide, especially for females. Between 1990 and 1995, female enrollment in some 47 developing countries increased from 226 million to 254 million. As a result, nearly 70 percent of girls of primary-school age worldwide were in school in 1995. In industrial countries, the biggest gains for women have come in professional graduate schools. Law and business school enrollments are approaching gender parity. In medical schools in the United States and Canada, more than 40 percent of students are female. In veterinary schools, women now dominate with nearly 70 percent of total enrollment. In engineering and architecture schools, however, men still greatly outnumber women.

While female education is rising, military expenditures are falling. After peaking in 1984 at $1,140 billion (1995 dollars), global military expenditures dropped to $701 billion in 1996, a decline of 39 percent. U.S. outlays, down to $243 billion in 1997 from some $370 billion in the late 1980s, still account for a third of the world total.

Vital Signs 1998 also tracks human health trends, including the global HIV/AIDS pandemic and cigarette smoking. In 1997, nearly 6 million people were newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS, bringing the total infected to date to 42 million.

While the number of cigarettes smoked per person has fallen 4 percent from the all-time high reached in 1990, the world still smoked some 5.8 trillion cigarettes in 1997, roughly 1,000 for each of its 5.8 billion people. Raising taxes on cigarettes in many countries has helped reduce smoking and the soaring health care costs associated with this deadly habit. In some countries, including Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark, the tax per pack of cigarettes exceeds $4, compared with an average of 66¢ per pack in the United States.

Another trend gaining momentum is a shift from taxing income to taxing environmentally destructive activities. Six European countries have begun this tax shifting process. Sweden, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Finland have all begun reducing taxes on personal income and wages while raising taxes on such things as carbon emissions, vehicle ownership, and garbage.

Although the world is still in the early stages of restructuring taxes to achieve environmental goals, this approach does promise to accelerate the shift to an environmentally sustainable economy. One attractive advantage of tax policy over regulation is that it enables policymakers to steer the economy in the right direction while exploiting the inherent efficiency of the market.


Lester R. Brown, President, (202) 452-1999
Christopher Flavin, Senior Vice President, (202) 452-1992 ext. 532
Mary Caron, Press Officer, (202) 452-1992 ext. 527


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