Material flow accounts statistics - material footprints

Data from September 2018

Planned article update: October 2019


EU's material footprint amounted to 14.2 tonnes per capita in 2016.

Comparison of the actual weight of traded goods with trade in raw material equivalents (RME), EU-28, 2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rme) (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

This article presents the global material footprints of the European Union (EU). Material footprints quantify the worldwide demand for material extractions (biomass, metal ores, non-metallic minerals and fossil energy materials/carriers) triggered by consumption and investment by households, governments and businesses in the EU.

Material footprints are compiled with a model, using data from national accounts and material flow accounts. The latter are presented in more detail in the article 'material flow accounts and resource productivity'. Other related articles discuss resource productivity statistics and physical imports and exports.

As part of the material flow accounts, Eurostat produces indicators among which is the indicator domestic material consumption (DMC). Those accounts, however, do not provide an entirely consistent picture of global material footprints because they record imports and exports in the actual weight of the traded goods when they cross country borders instead of the weight of materials extracted to produce them. As the former are lower than the latter, economy-wide material flow accounts (EW-MFA) and the derived DMC underestimate the material footprint. To adjust for this, the weight of processed goods traded internationally is converted into the corresponding raw material extractions they induce.

The data presented in this article are based on import and export flows expressed in their raw material equivalents (RME). These are estimated for the aggregated EU economy by Eurostat with models that are still under development and therefore do not produce official statistics yet. The results have a higher statistical uncertainty. According to the estimates in this article, EU imports in 2016 were 2.5 times higher when expressed in RME than imports recorded in EW-MFA. Exports were 4.1 times higher. The derived global material footprint, also referred to as raw material consumption (RMC), was 14.2 tonnes per capita in the EU in 2016 and 6.1 % higher than DMC.

Full article

Accounting for trade flows in terms of raw materials equivalents

Figure 1 shows that imports in RME and exports in RME are both substantially higher than the same flows measured in the actual weight of the traded goods as they cross the border. Imports in RME for the EU are estimated at 8.3 tonnes per capita, 2.5 times higher than actual physical imports. At 5.4 tonnes per capita, exports in RME are 4.1 times higher than actual physical exports.

Figure 1: Comparison of the actual weight of traded goods with trade in raw material equivalents (RME), EU-28, 2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rme) (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

It is important to realise that, in general, trade flows expressed in RME are larger than the actual weight of the products traded. Almost all products go through different stages of manufacturing, starting from the extraction of raw materials, then the transformation into raw products, followed by further processing and assembly into semi-manufactured products and finally into finished products. The mass weight of the extracted raw materials, e.g. gross ore, is generally much higher than the weight of the traded products that contain the processed material only.

For example, while the concentration of metals in extracted metal ores is often less than 1 %, the metal content of concentrates and basic metals is much higher or even close to 100 %. This means that extracting concentrates and basic metals from virgin metal ores, often done in non-EU countries and reflected in EU imports, results in a much higher RME than the actual weight of the traded goods. Hence, it is not surprising that the largest difference between the actual weight of imports and imports in RME is found for metal ores: 2.3 tonnes per capita in 2016. The basic metals are usually further treated in the EU and integrated into final goods. These goods are then consumed in the EU or exported.

Non-metallic minerals also show a significant difference; 0.2 tonnes per capita in actual physical imports compared to 1.5 tonnes per capita in RME imports in 2016. The category is only a small part of both indicators however. This is because most non-metallic materials are usually extracted in the country in question, rather than traded.

For exports, the largest difference is found for the same material: metal ores. However, the different material categories contribute more evenly to the difference than for imports.

The physical trade balance (imports minus exports) in RME is 2.8 tonnes per capita whereas the actual physical trade balance itself is 2.0 tonnes per capita in 2016. As for imports and exports, the difference is mostly due to the material category of metal ores. More detailed information on physical flows of imports and exports as reported in EW-MFA can be found in the Statistics Explained article 'Physical imports and exports'.

There are several other causes for the differences, although these cannot be directly identified in Figure 1. An important source of difference is that not all extracted materials required for producing a product necessarily become part of the product. For example, some products may require energy-intensive processing for which fossil energy carriers need to be extracted, but these are not represented in the mass weight of the product itself. This is also known as indirect material use. Generally, high-end consumer durables that require much processing and consist of many different parts will require more indirect use of materials than basic products. Another source of difference is due to the fact that in EW-MFA each traded product is assigned to one material category only, whereas traded products in RME are recorded with the whole range of materials that have contributed directly or indirectly to the production of the traded product.

Material flow indicators in RME compared to EW-MFA indicators

The adjustment of the trade flows from actual weight when crossing the border to RME also impacts the material flow indicators. The main RME-based indicator is raw material consumption (RMC), which mirrors DMC from the EW-MFA. It is also referred to as the EU's material footprint. RMC represents the total amount of extracted raw materials needed to produce the goods and services consumed by residents of the EU.

Figure 2 explains how EW-MFA indicators and indicators expressed in RME are derived and compares these indicators. The first two bars on the left show the calculation of DMC. Imports of 3.3 tonnes per capita of actual weight are added to domestic extraction (11.3 tonnes per capita) after which exports of 1.3 tonnes per capita are subtracted. The third and fourth bars show the same expressed in RME, i.e. the amount of raw material extraction carried out in the whole world to produce the goods in question. RMC is calculated by adding 8.3 tonnes per capita of imports to domestic extraction (the same 11.3 tonnes per capita), and subtracting 5.4 tonnes per capita of exports. These calculations result in an estimate of RMC of 14.2 tonnes per capita in RME, 6.1 % higher than DMC, which equals 13.4 tonnes per capita.

Figure 2: Material flow indicators derived from EW-MFA and MFA in RME, EU-28, 2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rme) (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

Direct material input (DMI) and raw material input (RMI) are auxiliary indicators that represent the amount of materials that are available to an economy. DMI represents the weight of the material as it enters the economy, either from the environment or because it crosses the EU's borders. RMI represents all the material that is directly and indirectly extracted to supply all inputs required for EU production. In 2016, at 19.6 tonnes of RME per capita, RMI in the EU was 33.5 % higher than DMI.

The EU's material footprint by material category over time

Figure 3 shows the development of the EU's material footprint or raw material consumption (RMC) over time. The change in total RMC is captured by combining the four areas reflecting the different material categories. For comparison, the development of DMC is included in the graph as a dotted line. Both indicators show almost the same development. For 2016, the absolute difference between RMC and DMC is 0.82 tonnes per capita. The minimum difference over the time period shown is 0.72 tonnes per capita, in 2015, and the maximum difference is 1.47 tonnes per capita in 2002.

Figure 3: Raw material consumption (RMC) by main material categories, EU-28, 2000-2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rme) (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

The RMC of non-metallic minerals is the major driver of the observed trend given that its development over time has the largest impact on the overall development. As the physical trade of non-metallic minerals is small and the trade balance in RME is close to zero, the total amount of RMC of this material category is close to the domestic extraction. This means that the development of total RMC is mainly determined by domestic extraction of non-metallic minerals. Non-metallic minerals are mostly composed of construction minerals such as sand and gravel. Gross value added in construction increased by 12 % in the EU-28 from 2000 to 2007. Domestic extraction of non-metallic minerals increased by 19 % in the same period. Gross value added in construction decreased by 11 % during the economic crisis (2010 compared to 2007) and decreased further by 5 % in 2016 (compared to 2010). Domestic extraction of non-metallic minerals decreased by 22 % (2010 compared to 2007) and by 5 % in 2016 (compared to 2010). It therefore seems that domestic extraction of non-metallic minerals tends to increase or decrease more than gross value added in construction. It also suggests that gross value added in construction is not only the main factor affecting the development of domestic extraction of construction minerals, but that it also drives the development of RMC.

Raw material consumption by final use of products

The indicator RMC gives insight into the quantity and type of materials required to meet the EU-28's demand for products. It can be further broken down by product and by type of final use to analyse which specific products and final uses drive material extraction. The term 'final use' indicates that intermediate consumption is excluded.

Figure 4 focuses on the two main types of domestic final use; final consumption expenditure and gross capital formation. Overall, 63 % of RMC is due to consumption expenditure, and thus 37 % of RMC is due to gross capital formation in 2016. When looking at expenditure on domestically produced and imported products, 79 % of total expenditure is due to final consumption and 21 % is due to gross capital formation (in 2015, 2016 data not yet available). Hence, the material intensity of gross capital formation is higher than that of final consumption expenditure. As explained earlier, non-metallic minerals are mainly construction materials. Thus, gross capital formation in the form of investments in construction is an important driver of the extraction of non-metallic minerals. Construction also requires metals, so the share of gross capital formation in the RMC of metals is also relatively high. RMC of biomass and fossil energy materials is mainly driven by consumption expenditure.

Figure 4: Raw material consumption (RMC) as result of final consumption expenditure and gross capital formation, by type of material, EU-28, 2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rmefd)

Table 1 shows in more detail which product groups are the main drivers of material extraction. In general, the product groups ranking highest for the different types of materials match what would be expected.

Table 1: Products with highest raw material consumption (RMC) by type of material, EU-28, 2016 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_rmefd)

The large impact of the product group 'Constructions and construction works' on raw material consumption can clearly be seen from this table. Construction has the highest RMC when considering all types of materials together. Construction also causes almost as much extraction of non-metallic minerals, in terms of tonnes of RME per capita (2.9 tonnes per capita), as the production of all products requires in terms of extraction of biomass (3.3 tonnes per capita) or extraction of fossil energy materials (3.1 tonnes per capita). Construction also ranks highest as product group causing most extraction of metal ores. Even for biomass and fossil energy materials, construction is among the five product groups with the highest raw material consumption.

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

The RME-based material flow indicators are derived from data on domestic extraction of materials and trade flows in RME. Domestic extraction is recorded in the economy-wide material flow accounts (EW-MFA) and represents the physical amount of materials extracted from the environment by a national economy. Eurostat collects EW-MFA from the national statistical institutes (NSI) of the EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the candidate countries under Regulation (EU) No 691/2011 on European environmental-economic accounts. For more details on the material flow accounts data collection, see the reference metadata of the EW-MFA.

EW-MFA are in turn a subset of the European environmental-economic accounts. Environmental accounts can be used to analyse the interaction between the environment and the economy, because the accounts organise environmental information in a way that is consistent with the accounting principles of national accounts. The environmental accounts methodology is in line with the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), which is an international statistical standard.

Trade flows in RME are estimated by Eurostat for the aggregated EU economy based on an environmentally-extended hybrid input-output model for the aggregated EU economy (for more details see the documentation of the EU RME model). Trade flows in RME and the RME-based material flow indicators (such as RMC and RMI) are not covered by Regulation (EU) 691/2011.

The compatibility of the SEEA with the System of National Accounts (SNA) which encompasses input-output tables provides a direct link between the data on domestic extraction taken from the EW-MFA and the input-output tables. However, the modelling that is required for estimating trade flows in RME results in more uncertain indicator estimates than for the indicators based on EW-MFA, which are compiled from foreign trade statistics for as far as trade is concerned.

Final consumption expenditure includes consumption expenditure by households, government and non-profit institutes serving households. Gross capital formation includes investments, both in fixed assets as well as changes in inventories and valuables. Basic concepts used in national accounting are further explained in the Statistics Explained article 'Building the System of National Accounts - basic concepts' from the online publication 'Building the System of National Accounts'. Another good introduction in national accounting is the OECD publication 'Understanding National Accounts'.

Eurostat's data set 'Material flow accounts in raw material equivalents' (env_ac_rme) include a breakdown by four main material categories; biomass, metal ores, non-metallic minerals, and fossil energy materials/carriers, each with several more detailed breakdowns, with a total of 67 categories (including grouped categories). The data set 'Material flow accounts in raw material equivalents by final uses of products' (env_ac_rmefd) presents data on raw material consumption, by material category, product and final use type.


Environmental accounts enable the assessment of the interplay between the economy and the environment, which in turn provides relevant information to see whether current production and consumption activities are sustainable. Measuring sustainable development is complex because it has to incorporate economic, social and environmental indicators. The data obtained may feed into political decision-making, underpinning policies for continued economic growth and sustainable development. An example of such a policy is the resource-efficient Europe flagship initiative, which is part of the Europe 2020 Strategy for a smart, inclusive and sustainable economy and which supports the shift towards sustainable growth in a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy.

The raw material consumption (RMC) indicator presented above is an alternative to the currently used domestic material consumption (DMC) indicator. In the future, when the estimates are of sufficient quality and available for all Member States, RMC may replace DMC to monitor progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 8 - 'Decent work and economic growth' and 12 - 'Responsible consumption and production'. As a first step towards this objective, Eurostat has published a country RME tool (see the section 'Material flows and resource productivity' on the Environment - Methodology page) to enable National Statistical Institutes to take this work forward. The most basic methodology to convert country trade flows of materials into trade flows in RME is to use aggregate EU RME coefficients and apply these to country trade flows. This coefficient approach, in an extended form, is implemented in the tool and is also applied by others for example in the final report Study on modelling of the economic and environmental impacts of raw material consumption for the European Commission.

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