Material efficiency

Mankind eats up natural resources faster than the rate that nature can replace them. Humans would need 1.3 Earths to maintain the current consumption level, and if all consumed like the Finns do, we would need four Earths. Various means are available to conserve natural resources and materials. These include cutting down consumption, improving energy and material efficiency with the help of technological advances and using legislation to promote sensible use of natural resources. Significant savings can be achieved by good planning, both in the public and the private sector. In order to avoid simply shifting the problems from one part of the production chain to another, seeing the bigger picture in resource use is important. Here tools such as product lifecycle assessment and production energy audit can be of help.

Material efficiency and climate change

Material efficiency refers to the utilisation of materials with a view of providing as many competitive goods and services as possible with the smallest possible inputs. Replacing goods with services can also play a part in material efficiency. In Finland, growth in natural resource use has broken away from economic growth, indicating increased material efficiency (Figure 1). Nevertheless, Finland's material flows are large by international standards, due to the material-intensive production structure, the large share of exports, and the high volume of natural resources consumed in road and building works. 

Material efficiency, or conservation of natural resources, and climate change have a two-way relationship: manufacturing processes and the use of natural resources affect climate change, and climate change in turn influences the amount, quality and distribution of natural resources.

Development of Finland's use of natural resources

Figure 1. Development of Finland's use of natural resources (total material requirement, TMR), economic growth and population growth compared to the level in 1970 [1].

Private and public consumption

The environmental impacts of private consumption are on the increase. Improvements in the material and energy efficacy of products are not sufficient to compensate for the impacts of growing consumption volumes. The factors affecting the growth in consumption include lifestyle changes and transformed social structures.

In the public sector, sustainable procurement is even more important, due to the high value of purchases and the fact that the public sector should provide an example to others. Procurement should be carefully considered to meet the actual needs, and environmental aspects should take centre stage in competitive tendering.

Industry and product manufacturing

Industry is responsible for consuming large amounts of natural resources and, in addition to end products, it produces significant amounts of by-products (Figure 2). Material efficiency means that goods should be manufactured using as little raw materials as possible and made to last as long as possible. At the end of their useful life, products should be recyclable. Product design is the most important phase in terms of having an impact on durability and recyclability. During the manufacturing phase, environmental impacts can be lessened by using best available technology (BAT) and recycling by-products. 

Methods to improve material efficiency

Figure 2. Methods to improve material efficiency at different production levels [2]

Construction is the the most resource-intensive industry, followed by metal and forest industries. The largest material flows in metal production are created during the excavation phase. Slag produced in smelting constitutes a significant by-product. Slag and waste rock from excavation can be used in earthworks and other industries. Towards the end of their lifecycle, metal products have high recycling value and can be used efficiently as recycled raw material.

In forest industries, nearly all by-products can be utilised in further processes. For example, wood chips from sawmills can be used as raw material for pulp and chipboard. Poor-quality wood chip can be utilised as energy or even biofuel. In the pulp industry, emissions and the use of chemicals and water have been reduced by process development. The end products from forest industries are usually recyclable. For example, recycled paper and cardboard become important raw materials for the forest industry.


Construction consumes the largest share of domestic natural resources. In addition to buildings, construction includes infrastructure, such as roads. Material efficiency of construction can be improved by choosing good-quality, durable building materials, avoiding the use materials that are harmful or difficult to recycle, preventing waste and recycling the waste that cannot be prevented, and replacing natural resources with recycled materials. The majority of building waste can be utilised. For example, crushed concrete and brick can replace natural stone. Wood waste can be used in energy production and old asphalt recycled to produce new asphalt.

In construction, material and energy efficiency are equally important since the decisions taken during the construction phase influence factors such as the energy efficiency of heating. Good-quality materials can make a difference for both material and energy efficiency. 

Replacing goods with services

Both consumers and businesses can replace goods with services. By using the design phase to improve the durability and reparability of their products, companies can gradually shift the focus from goods manufacture to service provision. Thus they create opportunities for repair and maintenance services, which add value to their business. The electronic and electrical appliances industry in particular suffers from a disposable product culture: often buying a new product is cheaper than having the old one repaired. This trend is bad news for material efficiency.

Consumers can have an impact on material efficiency by buying services instead of goods. For example, hairdressers, theatres, art exhibitions and sports offer alternative forms of spending. Goods do not have be owned either, as in some cases renting can be just as viable.

Scope for increasing material efficiency

Figure 3 charts the direct material flows from Finnish nature and from products imported to Finland in the years 1970–2005. Domestic soil and wood constituted the most significant flows in the Finnish economy. Figure 3 does not include hidden flows, i.e. the volume of materials used to manufacture processed products. If hidden flows are taken into account, the use of natural resources by mass is almost equally divided between foreign and domestic resources. Correspondingly, nearly 50% of the natural resources used in Finland was channelled to the manufacture of export goods. Just under 50% of the natural resources remaining in Finland were used to produce consumer goods and services, while the remainder, just over 50%, was spent in capital investments. Construction accounts for the majority of resource consumption in capital investments.

Finland's direct material inputs

Figure 3. Finland's direct material inputs, million tonnes [3].

Figure 4 illustrates the total use of Finland's natural resources by end-product groupings and according to the source of materials. As it is practically impossible to influence the material efficiency of the hidden flows in imports, construction and forest industries have the greatest potential for improving material efficiency.

Finland's use of natural resources by end-product groupings

Figure 4. Finland's total use of natural resources by end-product groupings according to the source of materials (DMI = direct material input) in 2002 and 2005 [4].

The total use of materials does not correlate directly with greenhouse gas emissions. For example, emissions from a steel factory are about 1,800kg CO2 per a tonne of steel produced, while the emissions from pulp and paper industry total about 300kg CO2 per a tonne of produced material. Figure 5 maps out the greenhouse gas emissions from domestic activities by sector. Only a part of emissions is generated by used materials, while the majority come from energy use. The blue bars illustrate the effect on sector-specific emissions of buying electricity and heating energy.

Greenhouse gas emissions from domestic activities by sector in 2002

Figure 5. Domestic direct greenhouse gas emissions and those from purchased energy by sector in 2002 [4]

Figure 5 shows that the greenhouse gas emissions from construction are small compared to the biggest sources of emissions. It may be concluded that, even though construction is the largest consumer of materials in Finland, any improvements in its material efficiency will not significantly reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is plenty of scope for conserving natural resources. The greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by improving material efficiency can be found in the forest, metal and chemical industries and in household and public sector consumption.

Industry already pays much attention to material efficiency in the manufacturing phase, as it bringsdirect cost savings. However, more efforts are called for to influence the lengthening of product lifecycles and improvements in recyclability, as they are not always in the interest of companies. The EU directives concerning producer responsibility attempt to rectify this situation.

Food accounts for about 50% of household consumption, with high levels of waste. Retailer's food waste due to expired products is in the order of a few per cent, but in households it can account for up to 10%. The environmental impacts of food waste are much higher than, for example, food packing materials. As food consumption accounts for about 15% of Finland's total CO2 emissions, the share of wasted food is 1.5%, or around 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

How can municipalities make a difference?

Municipalities have several steering methods at their disposal to promote material efficiency: sharing information and guidance, collecting waste management charges and using the proceeds wisely, setting conditions for waste management permits within certain environmental permits, and paying attention to material efficiency in procurement. Municipalities can also use the local reuse centres, hiring services, and service and maintenance companies. In addition, they can support the distribution of excess food from the retailers to those in need of food aid.

Providing information and advice to residents and businesses constitutes an important method of promoting material efficiency. The websites of the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority and the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation have material available for consumer communications.

Public sector procurement totals some 22 billion euros annually, around 15% of the Finnish GDP. Of this, local government procurement accounts for 75%. As these figures are very large, municipalities can have considerable influence on the market. Guidelines for material- and energy-efficient public procurement have been published on Motiva's website and elsewhere.

The majority of waste channelled through municipal waste management should be recycled. Waste sorting should be endorsed in households, businesses and the public sector. However, the actual material efficiency measures take place before the materials end up in waste.


  1. Thule-instituutti, Oulun Yliopisto: Ympäristö ja luonnonvaratalous
  2. Motiva 2008. Materiaalitehokkuuskatselmuksilla kustannussäästöjä ja ympäristöetuja. Lönnberg Painot Oy, Helsinki 2008.
  3. Sitra 2009. Kansallisen luonnonvarastrategian taustaraportti: Luonnonvaroissa muutoksen mahdollisuus. Kirjapaino Keili Oy, Vantaa 2009.
  4. Seppälä J., Mäenpää I., Koskela S., Mattila T., Nissinen A., Katajajuuri J.-M., Härmä T., Korhonen M.-R., Saarinen M. & Virtanen Y. 2009. Suomen kansantalouden materiaalivirtojen ympäristövaikutusten arviointi ENVIMAT-mallilla. (Assessment of the environmental impacts of material flows caused by the Finnish economy with the ENVIMAT model. Abstract in English.)Suomen ympäristökeskus, Helsinki. Suomen ympäristö 20/2009, Ympäristönsuojelu. 134 s.