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Per capita material flows, United States, circa 1990. All values are in kilograms per day. See caption for Figure 1 for further explanation.
Composition of Material Inputs to the National Economy
With economic development and technical change, the demand for materials evolves. Input composition reveals economic structure and dynamics and helps anticipate environmental consequences.
For example, environmental import attaches to the evolving ratio of the three fossil fuels used for energy, coal, oil, and gas, or in more elemental terms to the balance of hydrogen and carbon used to power and heat the nation (Marchetti, 1989; Nakicenovic, 1996). Although not used for energy, nonrenewable organic materials derived from petroleum and natural gas such as petrochemicals, plastics, asphalt, fibers, and lubricants comprise an appreciable fraction, about 6 percent, of total hydrocarbon consumption (Bureau of Mines, 1991a). The endpoints for these materials matter environmentally and as such merit their own distinct measure as a fraction of all hydrocarbon consumption.
The choice of structural materials indicates trends relevant to national environmental performance as well. Demand for properties in industrial and consumer goods influences selection among the major classes of structural materials: metals, ceramics and glasses, and polymeric materials including wood (Ashby, 1979). These materials range widely in their ability to bear loads, resist fracture, and operate in harsh thermal conditions. They also differ in typical densities (Figure 3). Similarly, they possess varying environmental attributes such as the energy needed, waste generated, and toxins released to the environment during extraction and processing. Comparing the energy needs for processing an equal