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Materials are one of five simple resources we use in our daily lives. Sustainability seeks ways of integrating materials into our existence with the minimum undesirable impact on our society, economy and environment. Especially difficult here is finding the balance between our desire for material goods and the impact that this has on our environment.


Each year we move more and more ‘stuff’ around the planet. This is all part of global industrial metabolism as raw materials are sourced, processed, distributed, used, and discarded. Materials are one of the ingredients that keep a healthy economy ticking over as it generates jobs, growth and, ideally, happy people in flourishing communities.

The problem?

One major challenge is to minimise the impact our activities have on nature – the mining of finite resources, the burning of fossil fuels, the disposal of hazardous and toxic waste, the overharvesting of forests, fisheries and other natural resources.


With greater technological sophistication and increasing wealth, the quantity of waste has not only increased, it has become more diverse, toxic and difficult to manage. Additional resources are consumed at every step of each item’s lifecycle. Good materials management involves being informed and aware, and acting on sound information.

In trying to follow the call to ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’, sustainable practices have moved beyond simply dealing with waste to ‘whole of life‘ materials management by taking sustainability ito account at the stages of design, engineering, and construction.

Materials and the natural economy

The impact on natural capital the effective operation of the natural economy, is rarely included in the market prices of products.


The guiding idea behind materials management is <dematerialization or zero waste. Material flows in human communities would be sustainable if
they occurred in ‘closed’ cycles as they do in nature. Dematerialisation attempts to convert the linear path of a product (from extraction, to manufacture, to use, to disposal in landfill) into a cyclical path where materials are re-used and recycled as they are in the natural economy, turning waste into resource.
Two formal processes are used to encourage this to take place:

Product stewardship

This is a recognition that manufacturers, importers, governments, and consumers all have a shared responsibility for the environmental impacts of a product through its life cycle. Product stewardship schemes need regulation to varying degree and are being introduced across the world.

Integrated Product Policy

addresses the life cycle impacts of products. In a review of 11 studies analysing the life cycle impacts of total societal consumption and the relative importance of different final consumption categories in the EU it was found that housing (building materials, heating, electrical appliances), transport (mostly cars and air travel) and food (mostly meat and dairy) are responsible for 70% of the environmental impacts in

Key points

  • Materials – along with energy, water, food, and biodiversity – are one of the five simple resource categories crucial to human existence[1]
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