Material efficiency in a multi-material world

Reid Lifset, Matthew Eckelman


Material efficiency—using less of a material to make a product or supply a service—is gaining attention as a means for accomplishing important environmental goals. The ultimate goal of material efficiency is not to use less physical material but to reduce the impacts associated with its use. This article examines the concept and definition of material efficiency and argues that for it to be an effective strategy it must confront the challenges of operating in a multi-material world, providing guidance when materials are used together and when they compete. A series of conceptions of material efficiency are described, starting with mass-based formulations and expanding to consider multiple resources in the supply chain of a single material, and then to multiple resources in the supply chains of multiple materials used together, and further to multiple environmental impacts. The conception of material efficiency is further broadened by considering material choice, exploring the technical and economic effects both of using less material and of materials competition. Finally, this entire materials-based techno-economic system is considered with respect to the impact of complex policies and political forces. The overall goal here is to show how the concept of material efficiency when faced with more expansive—and yet directly relevant—definitional boundaries is forced to confront analytical challenges that are both familiar and difficult in life cycle assessment and product-based approaches.


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