New Bottom Line Volume 5.6 – A Cyclical Materials Economy: What goes around comes around…or does it?

March 12, 1996

The growing attention to the concepts of industrial ecology, closed loop systems and a “recycling society,” as appealing as they are, raises a fundamental pragmatic question: Is it possible to develop and maintain an advanced industrial society? Is there enough stuff in circulation to do the job?

It’s a question that deserves a reality check, based in the actual flows of material in society. And it’s not just a theoretical question with a “yes or no” answer; it may be a guidance system question, because it offers strategic direction, and perhaps new economic opportunities, depending on how your firm or community answers it.

The quick answer is probably yes, given the striking material inefficiency of industrial society (only 7% of physical US throughput winds up as product, and only 1.4% is still product after six months), and the relatively low recovery rates for most secondary materials–but only with some dramatic changes in our materials economy.

And the answer must be yes, given the biological drivers. According to Swedish physicist John Holmberg, the anthropogenic flows of many metals (the result of human activity like mining and fossil fuels) in the biosphere now dwarf the natural flows (from weathering of rock and volcanic activity). While the antropogenic-to-natural flow ratio is less than 5% for aluminum (the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust), and about 2% for silicon, the ratio for iron is 140%, cadmium 390%, mercury 650%, lead, 1200%, silver 2200%, copper 2400%. So maximizing recycling of these metals is only part of the story. In the long run, we also need to gradually reduce the flows of these materials into the biosphere, or we risk toxic impacts on living systems, which are simply not adapted to deal with such flows.

Fortunately there are strategies that can reduce the environmental burden from this imbalance of flows, meet societal needs, and provide new business opportunities for those willing to grasp them, by reducing throughput while enhancing utility and profitability.

Reduce mining

This represents a fundamental strategic challenge to the mining industry. Its present identity is extracting ores from the earth’s crust and refining metals out of those ores. But for many commodities, the “ores” represented by urban and industrial waste streams are significantly richer than ores being dug from the earth. (Donald Rogich of the US Bureau of Mines reports a clear decline in the primary metals industry since the 1960s, “with a concurrent increase in metals obtained from secondary sources.”)

Sell function instead of product

Amory Lovins, who coined the term “negawatts,” observes that when a man goes to a hardware store to buy a drill, its not because he “needs” a drill; he needs a hole. Figure out how to sell him the hole instead of the drill–or the function the hole was to serve–and you’ve increased both utility and profitability, while reducing throughput. (Actually, the hole isn’t what he needs either, but that’s a longer story…)

Product life extension & product stewardship

It may run against the grain of several decades of the throwaway society, but many companies are finding a growing niche for durable products–products that last a long time, that are repairable or upgradable, that can be refurbished or remanufactured. This is old news for the auto parts industry; driven by the European “take-back” regulations, it will become new news for many other sectors. One advantage: longer product life “entrains” potentially hazardous materials in the economy and out of living systems.

Design for Recyclability

This aspect of Design for Environment shifts recycling concerns (ironically, all too often an “end of pipe” solution) to the very front end of the design process, with principles like: use materials that are easily (and economically) recyclable; avoid coatings, laminates, and other material combinations that reduce recyclability; make the product easy to disassemble into pure material fractions.


Buckminster Fuller coined this word to embody his design principle of “doing more with less” –“doing so much more given work with so much less pounds of materials, ergs of energy and seconds of time per given function as to occasion ever newer, lighter and stronger metallic alloys, chemicals and electronics.” We see this impact most dramatically in computers and communications, but it is a feature of progress in industries as diverse as automobiles and outdoor clothing as well.

Fuller observed in Fortune magazine 56 years ago that tonnage no longer represented prosperity. Today we are finally figuring out that the measure of wealth is no longer throughput of materials and energy through company or country, but the benefit generated per unit of throughput. And with that realization, a prosperous cyclic society becomes possible.

(c) 1996 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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