The total output of wastes and pollutants in Austria, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States has increased by as much as 28 percent since 1975 despite their increasing efficiency in using natural resources, said a report released by the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI).
The report also reveals that from one-half to three-quarters of the annual resource inputs used in these five countries are returned to the environment as wastes within one year.
"The resource efficiency gains brought about by the rise of e-commerce and the shift from heavy industries toward knowledge- and service-based industries have been more than offset by the tremendous scale of economic growth and consumer choices that favor energy- and material-intensive lifestyles," said Emily Matthews of WRI and lead author of the report, "The Weight of Nations: Material Outflows from Industrial Economies."
She added that by its very nature, economic growth poses a fundamental challenge to the environment''s capacity to provide sufficient resources and absorb wastes without serious degradation.
"Better government policies and savvy management practices on the part of industry can help break the link between economic growth and resource consumption and waste," said Matthews.
The study was carried out by a team of researcher''s from Austria''s Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies of Austrian Universities, Germany''s Wuppertal Institute, Japan''s National Institute for Environmental Studies, The Netherlands'' Centre of Environmental Science at Leiden University and the United States'' WRI.
The researchers documented the flow of raw materials, including minerals, fossil fuels, timber and other agricultural products, in five countries.
The higher the number of goods produced per unit of raw material or energy input, or waste output, the more efficient a country is in using its resources.
The researchers found that even though many countries have been successful in regulating some of the most hazardous wastes, such as lead and sulfur, outputs of many potentially harmful materials, such as arsenic, continue to increase.
The authors argued that this lack of control is largely due to the fact that such emissions often occur at the extraction, use or disposal phases of the material cycle, instead of the more regulated production phase.
They concluded that national accounts tracking the entire material cycle would provide policy-makers, industry leaders and the public with more comprehensive information on the extraction, use and disposal of such potentially dangerous wastes.
"We must understand the entire materials cycle, since neither governments nor industries can effectively manage what they don''t measure," said Matthews.
There are positive trends, however. The study found that quantities of solid wastes sent to landfills have stabilized or declined in some study countries by 30 percent or more.
Such reductions have been achieve, in part, through increased recycling efforts, the study noted.
Yet, the authors concluded, developing countries can be expected to attain roughly the same high level of materials intensity as the industrialized countries.
"Only if the level of materials intensity at which industrialized and developing countries eventually converge is substantially below that found in industrialized countries today can there be hope of mitigating global environmental problems and supporting the world''s growing population," noted Matthews.
by Virginia Sutcliffe