Environmental Relevance of MFA and Implications for Policymakers

The introduction of the new framework of sustainable development in the Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987) focused policy interest on material management policies and accounts and has increased the importance of MFA. Before looking at MFA indicators in detail, we would like to look at how MFA can be linked to different policies.

In general, environmental impacts of material flows result from the specific impact (per ton) multiplied by the volume of the flow. Therefore, the environmental impact of a small flow of a hazardous substance may be of the same order of magnitude as that of a high-volume flow of a substance with low toxicity. Materials lying outside this range of similarly high environmental impact (outside the ellipse in Figure 12.2) are of lesser interest or do not exist (Steurer 1998). This graph is a rough illustration stressing that materials of little specific impact can pose significant environmental pressure because of their total mass used. Apart from that, the environmental impact as the result of both the total amount of resources used and the specific impact still can vary significantly and depends on other conditions, such as the specific ecosystem taken from or released to.

The socioeconomically used materials can be grouped into three categories (Steurer 1998): the high-volume or bulk flow group, such as sand and gravel, with very low environmental impact per mass unit; the medium-volume flows such as timber, steel, and cement; and the small-volume flows with very high environmental impact per mass unit. To address those different types of material flows, specific policy instruments are needed, which will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Figure 12.2. Grouping of material flows according to volume and impact (Steurer 1998).

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