Tracking Material Flows Can Strengthen Public Policy
R. Larry Grayson

Rising population and industrial growth strain a variety of material and energy resources and the global environment. Understanding how to make the most economically and environmentally efficient use of materials requires an understanding of the flow of materials from the time a material is extracted, through processing, manufacturing and use, to its ultimate destination as waste or a reusable resource. It also requires knowledge of the environmental and societal impacts of the flows.

So-called material-flows data have informed national security, industrial and public policy decision-makers for decades. The United States currently imports more than half its use of dozens of commodities; many of the materials are strategic for economic growth and the security of the nation, and often the primary sources of the materials are in regions of political instability. The most obvious example is the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

While the need to collect material-flows information to support national security decisions may be self- evident, other uses of such information are also important. Analyses of material-flows data have led to surprising and counterintuitive insights into, for example, environmental pollutants. One such material-flows study identified dental facilities, not heavy industry, as the largest source of mercury releases into New York Harbor. Another study revealed that the widespread use of pressure-treated lumber over the past 30 years has created large stocks of arsenic in building materials that are now nearing the end of their useful life.

Read the National Research Council report, Materials Count: The Case for Material Flows Analysis, online at

Recognizing these past successes, the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Science Foundation, and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) to establish a committee to study material-flows accounting and issues, for which I served as chair. The committee’s recently published report, Materials Count: The Case for Material Flows Analysis, presents several recommendations and underscores the importance of material-flows accounting.

Organized material-flows accounts are in some senses similar to financial accounts — a routine part of the business of corporations, governments and organizations of all kinds. Financial accounts include such information as the balance between revenue and expenses, cash flow, reserves and competitive financial position. National and international agreements define the terms used in financial reports, the procedures for reporting, provisions for auditing and so forth. Decision-makers rely on this information so heavily that our modern world is essentially unthinkable without it. As with financial accounts, material-flows accounts include inputs, outputs, and accumulations in stocks, and could, if implemented, become critical for planning and decision-making.

However, the NRC committee concluded that although material-flows data have proven useful to both U.S. government agencies and private organizations, such data need a consistent framework, with a standardized structure and specific principles, in order to efficiently collect, analyze and distribute the information routinely, and to link other data at various levels. Only with such a framework, which can accept and integrate existing and future data, can material-flows accounts improve public policy making.

And while some good sources of data provide information relevant to material-flows, the sources are not yet adequate to populate formal material-flows accounts, the committee concluded. These inadequacies impede the development of sound public policy and business decisions. While not suggesting an expansive new data collection program, the committee recommended that a national-level effort be initiated to identify and fill significant data gaps that presently impede the development of effective material-flows accounts.

The development of material-flows accounts will raise important issues concerning the scope of the accounts, the data in them, and the tools and analytical approaches to studying stocks and flows. And many potential areas of utility have yet to be fully explored. The committee concluded that a comprehensive material-flows accounting program requires a research component that explores new approaches to studying stocks and flows that vary over space and time, and that studies the complexities and benefits of cycles linked by nature, by technology, or by a combination of the two. Relevant government agencies should support such research.

Also essential to developing structured material-flows accounts is that the present level of data collection and analysis be maintained. Thus, the committee recommended that the present material-flows data activities of the federal government, including those in USGS, EPA, and the departments of Commerce and Agriculture, be maintained at least at their current levels of activity.

It is crucial that material-flows accounting activities be highly participatory and collaborative among parties with appropriate expertise, relevant process knowledge and familiarity with the appropriate datasets. A partnership approach is critical to developing and maintaining such accounts. The committee recommended the system be designed to allow for the inclusion of proprietary data, while protecting business confidentiality.

Having examined several options, the committee also concluded that an independent organization is most likely to ensure success of material-flows accounting in the United States. The partnership process will be stronger if the organization is separate from existing data providers. Accordingly, the committee recommended a formal process to create andfund an independent organization similar to the Energy Information Administration at DOE, composed of interdisciplinary experts.

The conclusions and recommendations of the committee will help in the establishment of material-flows accounts. That, in turn, will improve public policy-making. Ultimately, material-flows analyses will couple with other economic, quality of life and environmental information to lead to the type of holistic public policy-making that a progressively more complex society demands.

Grayson chaired the NRC Committee on Material Flows Accounting of Natural Resources, Products, and Residuals. He is the Union Pacific/Rocky Mountain Energy Professor of Mining Engineering, department chair, and interim director of the University of Missouri-Rolla Energy Research and Development Center.

Materials Count: The Case for Material Flows Analysis, on the National Academies Press Web site

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

Back to top

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2018 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: