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Six graphics that reveal what materials we consume – and what we waste

We are devouring ever more biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals each year. These graphics show how, and the shocking picture of how much we throw away

Environment 9 February 2022

photographed while on an assignment for Indonesia?s largest coal mining company, South Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Dominik Vanyi/Unsplash

The sheer scale and complexity of the material economy makes it difficult to grasp how much of each different material we extract, what it is used to make and what happens when stuff gets thrown away.

There are some surprises in the data though. For all the focus on plastic and consumer goods like clothes, for instance, there really isn’t a lot of that in the grand scheme of things. The materials used to produce consumables are massively outweighed by those used in construction and to feed us all.

WHAT IMPACTS DOES STUFF HAVE?

The extraction, processing and disposal of all materials have environmental and health impacts, from particulate pollution and the greenhouse gases that drive global warming to the depletion of water resources and land use change. These burdens are unevenly distributed across the world. Higher-income countries have greater impacts per capita. They also outsource them to lower-income countries that have more intensive industrial and manufacturing bases, creating a negative “trade flow” in impacts.

New Scientist Default Image

HOW MUCH STUFF ARE WE USING?

The stuff we use can be divided into four main categories: biomass (crops and animal products), fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal minerals such as aggregates and sand used in construction. The amount we use has more than tripled in 50 years, with latest estimates suggesting it has probably now topped 100 gigatonnes (Gt). Rising population is one factor in this, as is increasing affluence and consumption, especially in some parts of Asia and South America. Those parts of the world are playing catch-up, however: North America remains by far and away the greatest per-capita consumer of material resources. …