1.2.4 Matter in the economy

Helpful prior knowledge and learning objectives:

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

South African artist Dillon Marsh combines photography with digital images in his series "For What It's Worth", to show the fragile human-nature relationship. Marsh photographs large mines, adding symbolic copper orbs to show the small amount of copper extracted compared to the ecological harm (Figure 1).

What do you think the image aims to show?

copper was extracted from the Palabora Mine in South Africa

Figure 1. This volume of copper was extracted from the Palabora Mine in South Africa (© Dillon Marsh, with permission)

What is the role of matter and materials in the economy?

Matter is anything that takes up space and has mass. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics (Section 1.2.2), matter cannot be created or destroyed. Earth has a finite amount of materials like water, soil, minerals, fossil fuels, and biomass. We measure these materials by their volume (the space they occupy) and mass (their weight).

As we do with energy, humans transfer and transform matter to meet our needs and wants. We cut down trees and transform wood into furniture or paper, mine metals for tools and electronics, and transform seeds and soil into food.  Factories process raw materials like cotton into clothing. These processes of extracting, transferring and transforming matter are how we create products in our economies. These processes use living matter and materials, and create waste matter (Figure 2).

The embedded economy model

Figure 2. The embedded economy, with matter inflows and waste matter outflows

(Credit: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich)

What’s the difference between renewable and nonrenewable materials?

Some forms of matter are renewable resources, they regenerate. Biomass, or all living matter, regenerates over time because of solar energy inputs. Some plants regrow in weeks or months, while others may take decades. These forms of matter are flow-limited. They are only renewable if we use them at a slower rate than they regenerate. It is also important that waste products from renewable resources safely recycle back into Earth’s systems, like composting food waste instead of putting it in a landfill.

Humans also use nonrenewable resources, like fossil fuels for energy mentioned in Section 1.2.2. These resources are stock-limited. We mine metals such as iron ore, aluminium, and copper to make machinery, electronics, and vehicles (Figure 3). Iron ore, making up over 90% of all mined metals, is transformed into steel for use in buildings, transport, and appliances.

All the metals we mined in a graphic

Figure 3. The metals mined from Earth in 2021

(Credit: Visual Capitalist)

Sand and gravel are crucial for making cement in construction projects like buildings and roads. While it may seem that we have a lot of sand on the Earth, much of it is not appropriate for construction. According to the United Nations, we dredge about 6 billion tonnes of sand yearly from oceans, rivers and lakes, such as China’s Poyang Lake, the world’s largest sand mine. Sand dredging is expected to increase further due to population growth and urbanisation, as more concrete is used for the built environment.

The Further Exploration section below includes an article and interactive graphics on how sand mining has severely impacted China’s Poyang Lake.

Why are we extracting so many material resources?

Production, aiming for “sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.” To reach this goal we need to understand how well (or not) we use material resources to meet human needs and understand the ecosystem impact of material extraction. We quantify a population’s material use through the material footprint, which includes the use of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores, and non-metal ores, in tonnes per year.

Per capita, the global material footprint was about 12.5 tonnes in 2019, but with significant differences by country. Low-income countries used around 2.5 tonnes per capita, while high-income countries used nearly 24 tonnes per capita.

SDG12 Responsible consumption and production symbol

Figure 14. UN SDG 12 aims to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

(Credit: United Nations)

According to the UN, in 2019, the total global material footprint reached 95.9 billion tons, doubling since 2000. By 2020, human-made products and infrastructure outweighed all living biomass on Earth. Our material footprint continues to grow as our populations and economies expand. We are running into Earth's material limits, rapidly using nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels, sand, and minerals, and extracting renewable resources like fish and forests faster than they can regenerate.

This astounding level of material use has been powered by the fossil fuel energy pulse discussed in Section 1.2.3. When fossil fuels were combined with machines, this boost in work and production used enormous amounts of material resources to create products to meet human needs and wants. This increase in production required even more energy and more resources to build machines. 

The reinforcing feedback loops associated with fossil fuel use cause a similar dynamic with material extraction because the two are so closely related in our economies (Figure 5).

Why do our economies create so much material waste?

When we use and change matter to meet our needs, we cannot avoid some waste because:

Though some waste is unavoidable, our current linear economies produce far too much (Figure 6). This is because of our disconnection from nature and mental models that do not understand where resources come from and where waste goes. In addition, our economic models do not consider the impact of use of material resources and waste.

Icons representing take, make, use and waste in the linear economy

Figure 6. Our current linear economy

What types of waste do we produce and where does it go?

There are many types of material waste from different sources, causing varied levels of damage to Earth systems:

Understanding different types of waste helps us reduce and manage waste to protect human and ecosystem health. Through circular design and recovery systems, we can significantly reduce, but not eliminate, waste.

As we produce and consume more, waste increases and re-enters Earth's life-support systems. Waste is returned to:

Waste becomes pollution when it enters these systems faster than those systems can decompose or assimilate it.

Landfill in Nepal

Figure 7. Landfill in Kathmandu, Nepal

(Credit: GRID-Arendal CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How does material use and waste impact ecosystems?

Extracting and using Earth’s material resources and the excessive waste from human economic activity severely harms Earth's life-support systems. Since 1970, there has been a 69% decline in biodiversity, with much of the loss occurring in biodiversity hotspots, areas of the world rich in unique plant and animal life as well as material resources. Our use of matter and the resulting waste causes water and air pollution, climate change, soil degradation, and habitat destruction. These impacts endanger all life, including human life, especially vulnerable and marginalised groups of people.

What can we do?

Because our use of matter is closely related to the production of goods and services in the economy, the most effective action we can take is to reduce production and consumption of material goods, particularly in wealthy Global North countries where human needs are largely met. This involves buying and producing less and moving to circular economy strategies (Section 1.4.2) to cycle products and materials many times in the economy to reduce the use of new materials and reduce waste.

Governments can pass laws requiring circular strategies, like France’s Anti-waste law. They can also provide financial support to businesses to invest in new processes and materials involving circular strategies. Businesses can focus on providing goods and services that people actually need, rather than producing and promoting products that do not add to human wellbeing. They can also design products that use fewer material resources, and can be cycled again and again in the economy to produce less waste.

Individuals like you can also lower material resource use and waste through the six Rs, in order of importance:

By lowering consumption and production and circulating materials and products, we can work to regenerate, rather than deplete, Earth’s material resources.

Jeans that have been repaired

Figure 12. Repairing your clothes and other household products can reduce material resource use and waste

(Credit: Sherri Lynn Wood CC BY-NC 2.0)

What are the barriers to reducing material use? 

Disconnect between causes and impacts

The regions consuming the most resources are different from those that feel the ecological impacts. Material resources tend to flow from low-middle income countries in the Global South to wealthier countries in the Global North. Those people in the Global North that use the most material resources do not (yet) feel the ecological effects, nor are they paying the true price of the resources they use. The negative impacts are felt mainly by those in the Global South. So the delays in the feedback to consumers and businesses in the Global North are a barrier to action.

Economic and population growth

Governments and businesses aim for continuous economic growth, measured by gross domestic product (GDP), which involves increased material use and waste. In addition, the Earth’s population at over 8 billion people, continues to grow and is expected to peak around the 2080s at around 10 billion. More people will use more material resources to meet their needs. 

Earth with Kenneth Boulding quote about endless growth

Figure 12. Endless growth on a finite planet isn’t possible

(Credit: Yuri Samoilov CC BY 2.0)

Techno-optimism in decoupling

Many people hope that improving efficiency, using fewer material resources to produce the same amount of goods, can reduce material use even as GDP increases. This is called absolute decoupling and relies on new technologies. 

But there is no evidence that this decoupling is occurring. Meeting human needs often requires materials, making it difficult to avoid using them, especially if we aim to grow our economies endlessly. In addition, we often see a rebound effect, where greater efficiency leads to more economic growth with even more material use. So technological efficiency can backfire if the goal is lower material use. Earth’s matter is finite, so our production of physical goods cannot grow forever, despite the claims otherwise.

Activity 1.2.4

Concept: Regeneration

Skills: Research (information literacy)

Time: 30 minutes

Type: Individual, pairs, or group

Option 1 - How efficiently are you using material resources to meet your needs?

Brainstorm things you can do in your own life to reduce the amount of resources you use and the waste you create to meet your needs and be happy. You can use the list of individual actions from the text to help you. Discuss these with a partner or with your classmates in a group.

Option 2 - Global material footprint - data interpretation practice

Examine Figure 14 below. Use a data interpretation strategy suggested by your teacher or your course to form some conclusions about the relationship between energy use per capita and GDP per capita.

Figure 14. Material footprint per capita

(Credit: Our World in Data)

Data interpretation strategy (if you do not have one)

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Conservation International (n.d.). Biodiversity hotspots. https://www.conservation.org/priorities/biodiversity-hotspots.

Daly, H., Farley, J. (2011). Ecological Economics (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It’s time for a circular economy. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/.

Marsh, D. (n.d.). Palabora Mine - 4.1 million tonnes of copper. For What it’s Worth. https://dillonmarsh.com/copper07.html.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. London: Penguin Random House.

Sharma, M. and Scarr, S. (2021, July 19). Devoured: How sand mining devastated China's largest freshwater lake. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/reuters-graphic-devoured-how-sand-mining-devastated-chinas-largest-freshwater-2021-07-19/

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Sustainable Development. https://sdgs.un.org/goals.

United Nations Environment Programme – processed by Our World in Data (2023, August 26). “12.2.1 - Material footprint per capita, by type of raw material (tonnes) - EN_MAT_FTPRPC” [dataset]. United Nations Environment Programme [original data].

Terminiology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.2.4 Matter in the economy

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

mass: the weight of matter

First Law of Thermodynamics: matter cannot be created or destroyed in the universe

biomass: organic matter that is burned for energy

volume: the space that matter occupies

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

transfer: to move something from one place to another

transform: a change in the state, energy or chemical nature of something

raw material: a basic material that is used to produce goods

extraction: taking something away from somewhere else, especially using effort or force

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs

waste: unwanted or unusable materials

renewable resource: natural resources that can be regenerated in a human timescale

regenerate: the process of restoring and revitalising something

flow-limited: a situation where matter is only renewable if we use it at a slower rate than it regenerates

composting: the natural process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil

landfill: the place where waste is disposed of by burying it

nonrenewable resource: natural resources that cannot be regenerated in a human timescale

fossil fuel: a non renewable energy source including coal, oil, and natural gas, formed over millions of years in the Earth's crust from decomposed plants and animals

stock-limited: a situation where matter is absolutely limited, as there is a finite amount

dredge: to remove sand, silt, mud, or other materials from the bottom of a body of water

urbanisation: the increase in the proportion of people living in towns and cities, along with the built environment

built environment: human-made structures or conditions in an area

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

material footprint: the use of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores, and non-metal ores, in tonnes per year

per capita: per person

reinforcing feedback: a situation where change in a system causes further changes that amplify the original change which can lead to tipping points in a system

Second Law of Thermodynamics: the total entropy or disorder in a system will increase over time

entropy: gradual decline into disorder

closed system: a system that can exchange energy (or information in social systems) with its surroundings, but do not exchange matter.

byproducts: an unintended product made during the production of something else

linear economy: an economic system where resources are extracted to make products that eventually end up as waste

mental models: a way of representing reality within one's mind

model: simplified representations of our world used to communicate ideas, understand complex processes and make projections or predictions

lithosphere: the solid, outer part of Earth

atmosphere: the gases surrounding the Earth

incinerator: a machine that burns waste at high temperatures until it is reduced to ash

hydrosphere: all the waters on Earth

runoff: the draining away of water and the substances carried in it from the surface of land, or structure

biosphere: all the living organisms on Earth

food chain: a series of organisms, each one dependent on the one before it as food; shows the transfer and transformation of energy and matter through living organisms in an ecosystem

pollution: the presence of a substance that has harmful effects on the environment

decompose: to break something into smaller parts, especially organic materials

assimilate: to take in and incorporate something into something else

organic waste: any material that easily breaks down in nature and comes from either a plant or an animal

solid waste: any discarded or unwanted materials

chemical waste: any discarded or unwanted chemical, especially those that cause damage to human health or the environment

synthetic: any material made artificially by chemical reaction

effluent: liquid waste discharged into a body of water

e-waste: electronic products that are unwanted, broken or at the end ofo their useful life

circular: having the form of a circle; in this course, closing the loop on linear economic systems

biodiversity: the variety of living organisms on Earth

biodiversity hotspot: an area of the world with a very high level of biodiversity

climate change: a change in the temperature and precipitation patterns in an area, in recent times due to human economic activities

degradation: the process of breaking down or disintegrating

habitat: the natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organism

Global North: a group of countries with high incomes and more industrialisation and service-based economies; these countries bear most responsibility for exceeding planetary boundaries

circular economy: an economic system where nature is regenerated and materials are kept in circulation through maintenance, reuse, recycling, composting, and other processes

Global South: a group of countries with low-middle incomes and less industrialisation; most of the global population lives in these countries, but these countries bear little responsibility for exceeding planetary boundaries

feedback: when outputs of a system circle back to impact inputs to the same system

economic growth: an increase in the total value of goods and services produced in a period of time

gross domestic product (GDP): the total value of all goods and services produced in an economy in a time period

efficiency: the ratio of resource inputs compared to outputs

absolute decoupling: a situation where economic growth increases, but resource use or some other environmental variable declines

rebound effect: a situation where efficiency gains in an input are counteracted by increased consumption and production, resulting in even greater use of the input