NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Doing More With Less

July 7, 2000

American households generate over 200 million tons of solid waste each year. When industry waste is included, the figure exceeds 11 billions tons per year. Although total U.S. consumption is on the rise, resource consumption per unit of output is declining:

  • A basket of typical US grocery items fell from over 2,750 pounds of packaging per gross production unit in 1989 to approximately 2100 pounds in 1993-94.
  • A skyscraper built today requires 35 percent less steel than the same building would have required a few decades ago.
  • In the 1990s, the aluminum can required only 33 pounds of metal per 1000 cans, compared to 54.8 pounds in 1963.

Dematerialization, using fewer raw materials and less energy per output, is a means to reduce our environmental impacts without harming the economy. A report to the EPA in 1997 found that the rate of growth of municipal solid waste had begun to slow by the mid-1990s, apparently due to source reduction, increased recycling and yard waste composting. As Vice President Al Gore has observed, "in the past 50 years the value of our economy has tripled, while the physical weight of our economy as whole has barely increased at all."

Even though dematerialization has reduced the amount of material consumed per unit of output, many opportunities for gains in materials efficiency exist. As environmental values play a more important role in the consumption choices that people make, the market will reward entrepreneurs who address those values by reducing environmental impacts and the costs associated with pollution and waste management.

Source: Lynn Scarlett (Reason Public Policy Institute), "Doing More With Less: Dematerialization -- Unsung Environmental Triumph?," Earth Report 2000, Ronald Bailey (Competitive Enterprise Institute), ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).


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