The environmental impact of materials use: the 1990-2004 dataset

In contemporary environmental policy, the physical consumption of materials is a theme that is seldom addressed. Measured from cradle to grave, however, the processes associated with materials consumption have a substantial environmental impact, not only in the Netherlands but also abroad. At the request of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (NMP), for the government’s Environmental Balance 2006 CE has analysed trends in the consumption of the 20 materials having the greatest environmental impact between 1990 and 2004.

The data collected for this project show that from 1990 to 2001 materials consumption increased in tonnage terms. Since 2001, though, there has been an absolute decoupling of GDP and kilogram materials consumption. This is due specifically to a decline in the use of sand and other building materials. Although sand predominates in the statistics in kilograms terms, environmentally speaking it plays only a very minor role. When material flows are aggregated on the basis of estimated environmental impact (expressed as 11 LCA impact categories), it is found that materials consumption continued to rise after 2001. Over the entire period, consumption of materials with a com-paratively high environmental impact is seen to have grown faster than that of relatively low-impact materials.

The environmental impact associated with the consumption of materials in the Dutch economy is not restricted to the Netherlands, but occurs abroad too. Indeed, a substantial fraction of the environmental impact of the materials consumed in the Dutch manufacturing industry occurs abroad, accounting for some 40% of the overall ‘cradle-to-grave’ impact of the materials in question. Part of this sector’s output is exported, though, and if the material flows associated with exports and imports are factored into the equation, the Dutch economy is found have no net environmental impact in other countries. The opposite is in fact the case, with the Netherlands on balance ‘absorbing’ environmental pollution and other impacts associated with overseas consumption. This is due above all to the relatively prominent role of agriculture and basic industry in the Dutch economy. It may be added that the picture varies depending on which environmental theme is being considered. In the case of land use, for example, the Netherlands does prove to be a ‘net importer’.