The world uses way more than it can recycle.
Thanks to this materials flowchart from Metabolic, we can now visualize how the world’s use of biomass, fossil fuels, ores, minerals and freshwater outweighs our ability to restore and recycle.
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The scoop: The world uses a lot of materials to produce a lot of waste.
By the numbers:
- Asia accounts for 60% of mineral extraction and 67% of freshwater use.
- The world disperses 28.7 billion tons of fossil fuels and biomass energy.
- Europe, Asia and N. America account for 78% of fossil fuel output.
- It takes <resources to produce >materials.
- A lot of freshwater, an increasingly scarce resource, turns into wastewater every year.
- Most raw materials and natural resources end up in the land, air or water.
Bottom line: The current production process outweighs Earth’s production capacity. To solve that, we need to maximize the life-cycle of products, treat natural resources carefully, and minimize waste.
Dig deeper → <1 min.
Familiar faces: China and the US impact the world
Asia has the largest production output of global materials in each category, accounting for the use of 60% of the world’s minerals and 67% of freshwater.
28.7 billion tons of biomass and fossil fuel production is dispersed every year. Biomass is a promising form of renewable energy, but externalities like cow manure are underutilized in the energy space and carry a lot of waste.
Europe, Asia and North America make up about 78% of the world’s fossil fuel production, yet African cities face the highest risk from climate change.
The world is inefficient
It takes a lot of resources to produce a relatively little amount of materials.
If you look at the left side of the materials flowchart: that’s how many materials we process.
If you look at the right side of the materials flowchart: that’s how many materials we can actually use.
The world converts 1,500 cubic kilometers of freshwater into wastewater every year. For context, that’s 5,000x more water than the flow of the Nile River.
A small percentage of materials are recycled or composted. Most end up in the land, air or water, or we incinerate them.
Treat with caution: the fight for fossil fuels and freshwater
Waste, material and resource management may be the issue of the century. The global economy has long-term demands beyond the Earth’s capacity. To push more materials back into the cycle, we need to minimize the use of scarce materials/resources and maximize the use of abundant materials/resources.
That means producing, storing, and disposing materials in a way that maximizes their life-cycle. That way, we can manage scarce resources like freshwater and fossil fuel in a way that encourages careful consideration rather than over-exploitation.
Fortunately, we can use data visualizations like this materials flowchart to illustrate and track our progress.