This paper first appeared in the 1989 National Academy Press (Washington, D.C.) book Technology and Environment, J.H. Ausubel and H.E. Sladovich, eds., pp. 50-69.

It was republished in the Elsevier journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change 37(4):333-348, 1990.

Note: The figures and tables are at the end of this document for easier online reading and printing.


Robert Herman, Siamak A. Ardekani, and Jesse H. Ausubel

Until recently the role of consumption as a driving force for environmental change has not been widely explored. This may be due in part to the difficulty of collecting suitable data. The present chapter approaches the consumption of materials from the perspective of the forces for materialization or dematerialization of industrial products beyond the underlying and obviously very powerful forces of economic and population growth. Examination can occur on both the unit and the aggregate level of materials consumption. Such study may make it possible to assess current streams of materials use and, based on environmental implications, may suggest directions for future materials policy.

The word dematerialization is often broadly used to characterize the decline over time in weight of the materials used in industrial end products. One may also speak of dematerialization in terms of the decline in “embedded energy” in industrial products. Colombo (1988) has speculated that dematerialization is the logical outcome of an advanced economy in which material needs are substantially satiated.1 Williams et al. (1987) have explored relationships between materials use and affluence in the United States. Perhaps we should first ask the question: Is dematerialization taking place? The answer depends, above all, on how dematerialization is defined. The question is particularly of interest from an environmental point of view, because the use of less material could translate into smaller quantities of waste generated at both the production and the consumption phases of the economic process.

But less is not necessarily less from an environmental point of view. If smaller and lighter products are also inferior in quality, then more units would be produced, and the net result could be a greater amount of waste generated in both production and consumption. From an environmental viewpoint, therefore, (de)materialization should perhaps be defined as the change in the amount of waste generated per unit of industrial products. On the basis of such a definition, and taking into account overall production and consumption, we have attempted to examine the question of whether dematerialization is occurring. Our goal is not to answer definitively the question whether society is dematerializing but rather to establish a framework for analysis to address this overall question and to indicate some of the interesting and useful directions for study. We have examined a number of examples even though the data are not complete.

Undoubtedly, many industrial products have become lighter and smaller with time. Cars, dwelling units, television sets, clothes pressing irons, and calculators are but a few examples. There is, of course, usually a lower bound regarding how small objects such as appliances can be made and still be compatible with the physical dimensions and limitations of human beings (who are themselves becoming larger), as well as with the tasks to be performed.2 Apart from such boundary conditions on size and possibly weight of many industrial product units, dematerialization of units of products is perceived to be occurring.

An important question is how far one could drive dematerialization. For example, for the automobile, how is real world safety related to its mass? In a recent study, Evans (1985) found that, given a single-car crash, the unbelted driver of a car weighing about 2,000 pounds is about 2.6 times as likely to be killed as is the unbelted driver of an approximately 4,000-pound car. The relative disadvantage of the smaller car is essentially the same when the corresponding comparison is made for belted drivers. For two-car crashes it was found that the driver of a 2,000-pound car crashing into another 2,000-pound car is about 2.0 times as likely to be injured seriously or fatally as is the driver of a 4,000-pound car crashing into another 4,000-pound car. These results suggest one of the reasons that dematerialization by itself will not be a sufficient criterion for social choice about product design. If the product cannot be practically or safely reduced beyond a certain point, can the service provided by the product be provided in a way that demands less material? lb return to the case of transportation, substituting telecommunications for transportation might be a dematerializer, but we have no data on the relative materials demand for the communications infrastructure versus the transportation infrastructure to meet a given need. In any case, demands for communication and transportation appear to increase in tandem, as complementary goods rather than as substitutes for one another.

It is interesting to inquire into dematerialization in the world of miniaturization, not only the world of large objects. In the computer industry, for example, silicon wafers are increasing in size to reduce material losses in cutting. This is understandable if one considers that approximately 400 acres of silicon wafer material are used per year by IBM Corporation at a cost of about $100 million per acre. A processed wafer costs approximately $800, and the increase in total wafer area per year is about 10-15 percent. Although silicon wafers do not present a waste disposal problem from the point of view of volume, they are environmentally important because their manufacture involves the handling of hazardous chemicals. They are also interesting as an example of how the production volume of an aggressive new technology tends to grow because of popularity in the market. Moreover, many rather large plastic and metal boxes are required to enclose and keep cool the microchips made with the wafers, even as the world's entire annual chip production might compactly fit inside one 747 jumbo jet. Thus, such new industries may tend to be simultaneously both friends and foes of dematerialization.

The production of smaller and lighter toasters, irons, television sets, and other devices in some instances may result in lower-quality products and an increased consumer attitude to ”replace rather than repair.” In these instances, the number of units produced may have increased. Although dematerialization may be the case on a per-unit basis, the increasing number of units produced can cause an overall trend toward materialization with time. As an example, the apparent consumption of shoes, which seem increasingly difficult to repair, has risen markedly in the United States since the 1970s, with about 1.1 billion pairs of nonrubber shoes purchased in 1985, compared with 730 million pairs as recently as 1981 (Table 1).

In contrast, improvements in quality generally result in dematerialization, as has been the case for tires. The total tire production in the United States has risen over time (Figure 1), following from general increases in both the number of registered vehicles and the total miles of travel. However, the number of tires per million vehicle miles of travel has declined (Figure 2). Such a decline in tire wear can be attributed to improved tire quality, which results directly in a decrease in the quantity of solid waste due to discarded tires. For example, a tire designed to have a service life of 100,000 miles could reduce solid waste from tires by 60-75 percent (Westerman, 1978). Other effective tire waste reduction strategies include tire retreading and recycling, as well as the use of discarded tires as vulcanized rubber particles in roadway asphalt mixes.

Dematerialization of unit products affects, and is influenced by, a number of factors besides product quality. These include ease of manufacturing, production cost, size and complexity of the product, whether the product is to be repaired or replaced, and the amount of waste to be generated and processed. These factors influence one another as well (Figure 3). For example, the ease of manufacture of a particular product in smaller and lighter units may result in lower production cost and cheaper products of lower quality, which will be replaced rather than repaired on breaking down. Although a smaller amount of waste will be generated on a per-unit basis, more units will be produced and disposed of, and there may be an overall increase in waste generation at both the production and the consumption ends.

Another factor of interest on the production end is scale. One would expect so-called economies of scale in production to lead to a set of facilities that embody less material for a given output. Does having fewer, larger plants in fact involve significantly less use of material (or space) than having more, smaller ones? At the level of the individual product, the shift from mainframe computers to personal computers, driven by desires for local independence and convenience, may also be in the direction of materialization.

Among socioeconomic factors influencing society's demand for Mate- are the nature of various activities, composition of the work force, and income levels. For example, as a predominantly agricultural society evolves toward industrialization, demand for materials increases, whereas the transition from an industrial to a service society might bring about a decline in the use of materials. Within a given culture, to what extent are materials use and waste generation increasing functions of income?

The spatial dispersion of population is a potential materializer. Migration from urban to suburban areas, often driven by affluence, requires more roads, more single-unit dwellings, and more automobiles with a consequent significant expansion in the use of materials. The movement from large, extended families sharing one dwelling to smaller, nuclear families may be regarded as a materializer if every household unit occupies a separate dwelling. Factors such as photocopying, photography, advertising, poor quality, high cost of repair, and wealth generally force materialization. Technological innovation, especially product innovation, may also tend to force materialization, at least in the short run. For example, microwave ovens, which are smaller than old-fashioned ovens, have now been acquired by most American households. However, they have come largely as an addition to, not a substitute for, previous cooking appliances. In the long term, if microwave ovens truly replace older ovens, this innovation may come to be regarded as a dematerializer. National security and war, styles and fashions, and fads may also function as materializers by accelerating production and consumption. Demand for health and fitness, local mobility, and travel may spur materialization in other ways.

The societal driving forces behind dematerialization are, at best, diverse and contradictory. However, the result may indeed be a clear trend in materialization or dematerialization. This could be determined only through collection and analysis of data on the use of basic materials with time, particularly for industry and especially for products with the greatest materials demand. Basic materials such as metals and alloys (e.g., steel, copper, aluminum), cement, sand, gravel, wood, paper, glass, ceramics, and rubber are among the materials that should be considered. The major products and associated industries that would be interesting to study could well include roads, buildings, automobiles, appliances, pipes (metal, clay, plastic), wires, clothing, newsprint and books, packaging materials, pottery, canned food, and bottled or canned drinks.

Hibbard (1986) reported without much detail that annual per capita intensity of materials use in the United States remained nearly constant between 1974 and 1985 at about 20,000 pounds. It would be useful to confirm this finding and extend the data to explore the extent to which such a fact might result from changes in gross national product (GNP), materials substitutions, market saturation, or other factors of the kind mentioned above. About two-thirds of Hibbard’s estimate comes from stone, and from sand and gravel for concrete. These materials may be less important for environmental quality than others that are more active in our “industrial metabolism” (see Ayres, this volume). Further thought should be given to defining baskets of materials whose use over time might form the most meaningful indicators with respect to environment from the point of view of processing and disposal.

Table 2 shows the consumption of carbon steel as a function of time across various major end products. As can be seen, the use of steel in two major industrial activities, namely, construction and automobile manufacture, clearly has been in decline. This significant dematerialization trend has come about by virtue of the use of lightweight, high-strength alloys, and synthetics as substitutes for steel and cast iron. The trend is especially evident in the automobile industry where large weight and size reductions were achieved by materials substitutions in the 1970s in order to conserve energy. Table 3, the estimated pounds of materials used in a typical U.S. -manufactured car, shows that the use of plain carbon steel declined by 475 pounds per car in the 10 years examined, 1978-1988. On the other hand, the use of high-strength steel, plastic composites, and aluminum increased by 99, 43, and 36.5 pounds, respectively, in the same period. The result is a total reduction in weight of a typical U.S. car of about 400 pounds from 1978 to 1988. In the construction industry, however, caution must be exercised in associating the decline in steel use with dematerialization, because such a decline could be indicative of the increased popularity of concrete over steel as the basic construction material for aesthetic, technical, or cost reasons.

Growth in the use of advanced materials is expected to continue. For example, it is anticipated that by 1997 the world market for fabricated advanced polymer composites will be almost triple its 1987 level (Miller, 1988, pp. 57-59). These changes will significantly affect the industries producing conventional materials because the automotive industry has traditionally been a major consumer of these materials. In 1978, for example, the automotive industry used 22 percent of the total U.S. steel consumption and 17 percent of aluminum consumption (Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, 1982, p. 6).

The significant decline in the use of steel in the automobile industry provides strong evidence in support of dematerialization at the production end. An examination of energy consumption in selected national economies between 1973 and 1985 further underscores an industrial trend in efficiency and dematerialization (Table 4). Although total energy consumption in most countries increased considerably during this period, the energy consumed per 1980 constant GNP dollar declined in 9 out of 10 nations examined. This result may be explained in part by energy efficiency in production or by an increasing GNP associated with the services sector. Whether increasing energy efficiency is a net dematerializer is not clear. Often, increasing energy efficiency involves substituting durable capital goods in the form of better or larger amounts of building materials such as insulation. However, further evidence of dematerialization at the production end is provided by data on industrial solid waste generation, which show a significant decline from 1979 to 1982 (Figure 4).

The generation of municipal solid waste, also shown in Figure 4, has been on the increase. Examination of trends in municipal solid waste generation (total and by each component) provides insight into materialization and dematerialization at the consumption end. The data on municipal solid waste generation suggest a trend toward materialization at the consumption end. Table 5, for example, shows the total amount of paper waste in the municipal solid waste in the United States. As can be seen, from 1960 to 1982 there was an approximately 75 percent increase in the total paper waste generated, as well as an approximately 35 percent increase in the paper disposed per capita. Such increases are to be viewed in light of predictions that the advent of computers would reduce the use and wastage of paper. A possible contribution to this rise in paper waste is the increase in circulation of daily newspapers from a total of 53.8 million in 1950 to 62.8 million in 1985 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975-1985).

However, other factors must be taken into account, such as changes in the average size and number of pages of newspapers over the country, as well as the amount of wastepaper that is used by the industry for printing new newspapers. Wastepaper consumption in the newspaper industry rose from about 2.6 million short tons in 1977 to 3.6 million short tons in 1987 (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, 1988, p. 22).

Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in the paradox associated with the proliferation of paper in our sociotechnical culture. The following discussion on this point is based on a recent article by Tenner (1988). We were all encouraged in the past to believe that information technology, as a by-product, was going to reduce the consumption of paper significantly. As we all now know, the reverse has transpired, with paper prices rising and trees in jeopardy. Consumption in the United States of writing and printing paper increased in 1959-1986 from about 7 to 22 -1984 the use of paper by U.S. million tons, and in the short period 1981 businesses rose from 850 billion to 1.4 trillion pages. It is estimated that between 1986 and 1990, printed material may increase from about 2.5 to 4 trillion pages. In 1988 newsprint production was approaching capacity at about 12 million metric tons, and in the Pan Am Building in New York City a newsstand is reported to carry more than 2,000 magazines!

Banks have rid us of the savings account passbook, but in its place there is a spate of paper. Consumers have resisted reliance on home computer on-line services. Moreover, attempts by banks not to provide customers with canceled checks have failed; in 1985 U.S. banks processed some 45 billion checks. Plastic credit cards generate considerable amounts of paper, as do automated teller machines. The Rush Medical Library, Chicago, used about 188 linear miles of paper in its photocopy machines in the year 1982-1983, and the Princeton University computer center used close to 6 million pages of letter-sized laser paper in 1986, plus about 4,500 cartons of impact printout paper. Harvard's computer printers use more than 22 million pages a year, not including personal and faculty computers.

The question has been asked, What was wrong with the assumption that electronics would substitute for paper? Apparently nobody anticipated that the microchip would catalyze the burgeoning of paper to such an enormous extent. It would appear that the information age technicians did not understand that the amount of information was not fixed and that electronic information was not simply a substitute for paper. Computers are storing greater quantities of more kinds of information than ever before in extremely compact form, but people prefer reading from the printed page rather than the average computer screen, which in order to have excellent resolution must be improved by a factor of about 10. In addition, there is an increase in office workers compared to those in manufacturing jobs, and this shift leads to an increase in precisely the kind of people who generate paper. Note also that it is easy to produce photocopies compared to the old days, when making carbon copies was indeed a great burden.

In 1959 when Xerox introduced its dry copier, a consulting company estimated that no more than 5,000 such copiers would be required in the entire United States. The huge mailings today from businesses and various organizations would not be feasible without the backup of the copier and the computer. In 1986 businesses in the United States bought 200,000 photocopiers, and this market is expected to increase for some years to come. It is difficult to comprehend that in 1986 about 45 billion pieces of bulk mail alone were handled by the U.S. Post Office. Notwithstanding the popularity of electronic mail, facsimile machines are materializing by the millions and spewing forth even more paper.

One factor that further encourages the storage of data on paper is that it is unsafe to assume that electronically stored records will be readable for even a small fraction of the 200- or 300-year lifetime of acid-free paper (National Research Council, 1986). Even if the data are imprinted on poor paper, it is always possible to photocopy it and obtain a better copy than the original, before the sulfite sheet crumbles into its acid grave. Evidence of our insecurity about electronic memory is that, although 90 percent of securities trades now take place through electronic means, they are, as one can surmise, backed up by mountains of paper.

So perhaps it is not surprising that in the information era, the trees of the world are at risk. Moreover, the equivalent of about 1,500 pounds of petroleum is required to make a ton of paper (Tenner, 1988). One wonders which will last longer-energy or the trees. Imagine the implications for the environment if a cost-effective, but nonbiodegradable, plastic substitute were found for paper! Parenthetically, we might add that biotechnology, operating at the genetic level, might be expected to bring about dematerialization to an extent even beyond that anticipated for the information technologies. However, if the end result is not only a new gene but also an enormous "supercow," then the effect again may well be materialization.

The increase in paper waste is related closely to the broad arena of efficiency in use as well as recycling. Examination of municipal and industrial waste (solid and liquid) shows that the annual generation rate per capita in the United States was estimated in the mid-1970s at approximately 3,600 pounds (Tchobanoglous et al., 1977). Japan was closest to the United States with an estimated average of 800, followed by the Netherlands at 680, and the Federal Republic of Germany at 500. The reliability and comparability of the estimates are uncertain because Cointreau (1982), for example, shows only a factor of two difference in daily per capita waste generation between New York and cities such as Hamburg and Hong Kong. Moreover, comparable estimates of which we are aware do not include emissions of environmentally important substances such as gaseous air pollutants or carbon dioxide. The human race now discharges to the atmosphere more than 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 1 ton per person.

The considerably smaller rates of waste generation in other industrial countries are often attributed to either a lower consumption rate of goods or a more serious effort to recover and reuse the wastes ( et al., 1977). In this connection, it would be instructive to examine questions such as how much paper is sold per capita in the United States, what fraction of a newspaper is recovered, whether more envelopes can be designed for reuse, what fraction of paper wasted is still usable, and what fraction of paper available for recycling is actually recycled. According to one estimate (Hagerty et al., 1973), only 24 percent of the 47 million short tons of recyclable paper in U.S. solid waste was recovered in the early 1970s.

Although paper makes up the greatest fraction of solid waste (30-35 percent), it has one of the lowest recovery rates, following textiles (17 percent) and zinc (14 percent). These low recovery rates are more than likely due to economic reasons. A recent Wall Street Journal article (Paul, 1989) stated, "The bottom, has fallen out of the market for recycled newspapers, exacerbating the nation's already critical garbage problems." It is reported that just a few months ago municipalities were receiving as much as $25 per ton for their newspaper waste, whereas they must now pay about $5 to $25 per ton to have old newspapers hauled away. This situation is counter to the myth that recycling should always make money. In this volume, Ayres, Ausubel, and Lee each argue that perceived scarcity of physical resources usually leads to technological substitutions. If substitution is not possible, then recycling is considered. From a purely economic standpoint, high-grade resources are exploited before lower grade resources and recycling are considered economically viable.

An overall view of scrap usage in the United States during 1977-1987 is shown in Table 6, where data on total consumption and percentage of total consumption in recycled material for a number of metals, as well as paper, are presented. Among the metals, there was an increase in total consumption of aluminum, lead, and nickel over the 10 years examined, whereas there was a decrease in steel and iron, as mentioned earlier. During this same period the percentage of total consumption in scrap increased for aluminum, lead, and steel. Zinc and paper have the lowest percentage of total consumption in recycled scrap, namely, 17.7 and 25.8 percent, respectively, in 1987. It is difficult to see exactly what correlations may exist or the underlying reasons for the observed variations. The availability of scrap might be expected to depend on total consumption, but it is also a function of usage, costs, and other factors.

Another question to be raised in connection with the economics of consumption and disposal is what the "true" cost of consumption and processing of the generated waste is to society. What is the true cost of burning fossil fuel for transportation when, for example, the finiteness of resources and consequent long-term damage to the environment are considered? Should high-grade resources be made available at much higher cost so that profits may be reinvested toward development of the capital and the knowledge to permit the use of lower-grade resources and the development of technological substitutes? What is the actual disposal cost of municipal and industrial wastes? To what extent is the cost of waste collection subsidized by different societies and different segments of a society? Would a higher cost for garbage collection effectively encourage recycling, sorting recyclable materials at the generation source, and dematerialization? Would it encourage more illegal dumping? Can society truly afford to continue functioning in its present "throwaway" mode of products such as food, clothing, diapers, and shoes, as well as watches, radios, flashlights, light bulbs, cameras, calculators, pens and pencils, razors, knives, spoons, and forks?

A practice potentially very risky to society is the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the atmosphere (see Glas and Friedlander, this volume). Projected depletion of the ozone layer, attributed to the environmental release of CFCs, resulted in the U.S. ban of nonessential CFC aerosol propellants in the mid-1970s. Combined release of CFC-11 and CFC-12 in the United States traditionally accounted for about one-third of the total worldwide release of these substances. The aerosol ban, however, resulted in only a gradual and temporary decline of production and emissions levels (see Glas, this volume, Figure 5), because CFC-11 and CFC-12 have had other, growing, nonaerosol industrial applications such as in refrigeration, air-conditioning, cleaning electronic and computer equipment, and foam manufacturing (Warhit, 1980). According to a 1987 international treaty the industrial countries agreed to cut CFC production in half by the year 2000. In March 1989 there was a conference in London, attended by over 100 nations, at which a proposal for the total elimination of CFCs by the year 2000 was entertained. Although it certainly seems prudent to reduce or eliminate CFC use, one wonders whether their elimination may yet result in further materialization, for example, through a need to have bulkier refrigerators again.

Lead is another example of a substance whose wide use presents a cleanup problem. Lead-containing aerosols, paint, and vehicular exhaust are among major sources of lead in the environment. It has been estimated that an effective program to reduce exposure to lead paint from the interiors of the nation's housing stock would cost between $28 billion and $35 billion (Chapman and Kowalski@ 1979). Although ingestion of lead-based paint chips is regarded as the major cause of lead poisoning in children, lead exposure results from a combination of sources, including automotive lead emissions. It is estimated that 70 percent of the lead in gasoline is emitted into the atmosphere and that this accounts for about 90 percent of airborne lead emissions (Boggess and Wixson, 1977).

In the 1970s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted a phased reduction schedule for the lead content of gasoline that has resulted in installation of lead-intolerant catalytic converters in virtually all cars produced in the United States. The national average lead content of all grades of gasoline declined from about 2.5 grams per gallon in 1968 to less than 0.1 gram per gallon in 1988, and sales of unleaded gasoline have increased consistently. Lead was introduced as an antiknock additive to gasoline in the 1930s to increase the efficiency of automobile engines. As such, lead may have contributed to the dematerialization of cars in terms of either weight or energy. But we did not foresee sufficiently that the increasing quantity of lead in our environment would itself become a serious problem.

In a recent study the EPA (1988) identified some 30 broad categories of environmental problems (see Frosch et al., this volume, Table 1) and ranked the seriousness of these problems according to the risk they posed to the population in terms of total incidence of disease and other factors. The risks considered included cancer risk, noncancer health risks, ecological effects, and welfare effects such as materials damage to industrial, agricultural, commercial, and residential properties, among others. Lead and CFCs along with, for example, sulfur dioxide, suspended particulates, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides were included in three air pollutant categories regarded as having relatively high risks. Industrial dematerialization would have a significant impact on reduction of the various risks associated with these air pollutants.

Other problems evaluated in the EPA report in which materialization is a central factor include nonhazardous municipal and industrial waste, as well as mine waste. Discharges of direct and indirect effluents and municipal sludge into surface waters and wetlands are also among the high-risk problems that might be associated with materialization. In this connection, discharges of sludge and medical waste into the oceans are pressing problems with high news visibility.

During the past few years, the Atlantic Ocean has been regurgitating progressively more garbage and waste onto the beaches of the northeastern United States, especially around New York and New Jersey. Included in the dumping that causes this shocking situation are some 500,000 pounds of medical waste per week from New York City alone. Examples of materialization resulting from medical technology are the plastic throwaway hypodermic syringe and throwaway needles. In the old days, glass syringes and high-quality surgical steel needles were sterilized and used many times over. At present, syringes, for many good reasons, are used once and thrown away, as is much other medical material.

With the burgeoning of hazardous medical waste, the disposal task, especially at hospitals, becomes complex and expensive. This unquestionably leads to illegal dumping to cut costs and avoid demanding procedures. It is difficult to believe that clinic and hospital authorities are not aware of the dangers associated with illegal disposal. 'Me midnight dumping of medical wastes raises the question of the role of the entire spectrum of "criminal" activity in our society with regard to transport and disposal of materials. Attempts are being made to determine at what point in the disposal chain the system breaks down. The solution to this type of complex problem must, of necessity, have an ethical component, with better values placed over and above such considerations as cost-effectiveness.

Although no recycling process is 100 percent efficient, recycling is a promising means of dematerialization. The construction industry is one of the major generators of solid waste. What fraction of construction waste is reusable? To what extent are brick, wood, steel, and asphalt reused? In general, a more thorough examination of practices in the construction industry regarding waste generation and processing is warranted in studies of dematerialization. How much waste is generated in construction activities such as paving roads and building houses? What happens to the waste from building construction or from demolished buildings? What determines whether a building should be demolished or renovated? What fraction of buildings is demolished as a result of safety considerations or to be replaced by a larger structure for economic reasons? What is the potential for recycling materials resulting from demolition operations, as well as various construction activities? To what extent do construction and demolition “activate” environmentally significant materials? The embalming of no longer-usable nuclear power plants is an interesting case of permanent structural materialization.

In a recent essay, Marland and Weinberg (1988) make a powerful case for a life-cycle approach to infrastructure systems, exploring connections between quality of service provided and aging of facilities. They ask three fundamental questions about a variety of infrastructure systems: What actually is the characteristic longevity of a given infrastructure? How long could it last? How long should it last? This first attempt at a demography of infrastructure needs to be pursued in many areas in connection with materialization. From an environmental perspective, what could and should be the design life of everything we create? In the area of nuclear materials we are accustomed to asking long-range questions about how materials will be transported, stored, and disposed of. Such a life-cycle perspective might be applied usefully to other materials as we contemplate transforming them for human purposes, and thus provide guidance about instances in which dematerialization rather than materialization should be the eventual objective. More generally, it might be useful to undertake materialization impact assessments for selected new products and activities. Furthermore, the interplay between dematerialization and transportation costs in terms of weight and bulk should be examined.

The questions raised and discussions set forth in this chapter point to a number of overall objectives, namely, to single out the important driving forces behind trends in materialization and dematerialization, to determine whether on a collective basis such forces drive society toward materialization or dematerialization, and to assess the environmental implications of these long-term trends. Many questions remain to be answered quantitatively; for example, how much basic material and how many of each major product are used per capita over time and what is the lifetime of various manufactured products? If we consider that for every person in the United States we mobilize 10 tons of materials and create a few tons of waste per year, it is clearly important to gain a better understanding of the potential forces for dematerialization. Such understanding is essential for devising strategies to maintain and enhance environmental quality, especially in a nation and a world where population and the desire for economic growth are ever increasing.


The authors gratefully acknowledge assistance and comments from Walter Albers, Robert Ayres, Gerald Culkin, Denos Gazis, Shekhar Govind, Ruth Reck, Richard Rothery, and Hedy Sladovich.


1 In an essay published in the proceedings of the Sixth Convocation of the Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences, Colombo (1988, pp. 26-27) makes the following observation:

[E]ach successive increment in per capita income is linked to an ever-smaller rise in quantities of raw materials and energy used. According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund, the amount of industrial raw materials needed for one unit of industrial production is now no more than two-fifths of what it was in 1900, and this decline is accelerating. Plus, Japan, for example, in 1984 consumed only 60 percent of the raw materials required for the same volume of industrial output in 1973.

The reason for this phenomenon is basically twofold. Increases in consumption tend to be concentrated on goods that have a high degree of value added, goods that contain a great deal of technology and design rather than raw materials, and nonmaterial goods such as tourism, leisure activities, and financial services. In addition, today's technology is developing products whose performance in fulfilling desired functions is reaching unprecedented levels. . . . One kilogram of uranium can produce the same amount of energy as 13 U.S. tons of oil or 19 U.S. tons of coal, and in telecommunications 1 ton of copper wire can now be replaced by a mere 25 or so kilograms of fiberglass cable, which can be produced with only 5 percent of the energy needed to produce the copper wire it replaces.

2 It would be interesting to venture calculations about the significance for materialization of the increasing average height and weight of humans, even though this effect is small compared with that of present population growth. The increase directly expands needs for textiles and food, as well as creating pressure for larger vehicles and dwellings.


(click on the figures for a high-resolution view)

FIGURE 1 Production of automobile, truck, and bus tires in the United States.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975-1985). NOTE: Lines connecting data points are for clarity only.

FIGURE 2 Consumption of automobile, truck, and bus tires in the United States per million vehicle miles driven.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975-1985). NOTE: Lines connecting data points are for clarity only.

FIGURE 3 Factors affecting, and affected by, the dematerialization process. Economic and population growth, of course, also strongly interact with many of the factors.

FIGURE 4 Disposal of municipal and industrial solid waste in the United States.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975-1985).


(click on the tables for a high-resolution view)

TABLE 1 Apparent consumption of nonrubber shoes in the United States. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975-1985).

TABLE 2 Apparent consumption of carbon steel products in the United States by end use, 1970-1982 (million tons). NOTE: These data were constructed by aggregating various American Iron and Steel Institute categories and by allocating shipments to service centers and imports to the end-use sectors. SOURCE: National Academy of Engineering (1985).

TABLE 3 Estimated material in a typical U.S. car (pounds). NOTE: Estimates are based on U.S. models only, including family vans and wagons. SOURCE: Stark (1988, pp.33-37).

TABLE 4 Energy intensity of selected national economies, 1973-1985. SOURCE: International Energy Agency (1987).

TABLE 5 Amount of paper in the total municipal solid waste generated in the United States. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975-1985).

TABLE 6 Scrap use in the United States. SOURCE: Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (1988).


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Chapman, E. R., and J. G. Kowalski. 1979. Lead Paint Abatement Costs: Some Technical and Theoretical Considerations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.

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