20% of Earth’s natural resource use goes to waste

One-fifth of the world's natural resources that are extracted for use end up as waste according to new research which examines the hidden environmental costs of raw materials use.

A study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) has found that 62 billion tonnes of resources such as minerals, wood, metals, fossil and biomass fuels are extracted from the earth each year.

On average that’s almost 10 tonnes for every living person. While the advent of new technologies have enabled greater resource efficiencies, the volume of natural resources extracted has increased 65% over the past 25 years.

The OECD report Sustainable materials management highlights the benefits of applying a lifecycle approach to resource use, which can reveal the true extent of embodied carbon and water attached to products, services and consumer goods.

Key findings revealed for instance that food has a larger environmental footprint than the packaging wrapped around it. As milk production generates five times more CO2 than the carton it comes in, wasting milk is worse for the environment than buying smaller containers.

The study also noted that modern washing machines halve energy and water use compared to those purchased 10 years ago. So while extending an older machine’s life generates less waste, it can also increase its impact on the climate, air and water.

The report’s authors have recommended a series of measures to further decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.

They argue that because material flows involve many stakeholders throughout the supply chain and often over wide geographic areas, governments need to work closely with industry and other key parties to encourage cooperation, innovation and cost savings.

Industry can also drive change through better designs that reduce products’ negative health and environmental impacts through their lifecycle.

Consumers have a role to play too by making more informed choices. These include reducing the use of unnecessary material, reusing and recycling, and taking advantage of advanced technologies to limit waste and toxins.

Findings from the study will inform the European Resource Efficiency Platform, an EC initiative that provides guidance to the European Commission on the transition to a more resource-efficient economy.

Maxine Perella

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