Physical imports and exports

Data extracted in July 2019

Planned article update: March 2020


Physical imports amounted to 3-4  tonnes per capita while physical exports were around 1 tonne per capita in the EU in 2018.

Development of physical imports, exports and trade balance, EU-28, 2000-2018

While the European Union's (EU) trade balance in monetary values is more or less even, its physical trade balance is clearly asymmetric. The EU imports about three times more goods by weight from the rest of the world than it exports. Quantitatively the physical imports into the EU are dominated by fossil fuels and other raw products which typically have low values per kilogram. On the other hand, the EU exports high-value goods such as machinery and transport equipment. Data on physical imports and exports are collected in the framework of material flow accounts which are presented in more detail in the article material flow accounts and resource productivity . Related articles discuss resource productivity statistics and material footprints.

Full article

In monetary terms, the EU's trade in goods is balanced; imports and exports are more or less in the same order of magnitude and both have almost doubled since the year 2000. From a physical perspective however — measured as the actual weight of traded goods — the EU’s trade pattern with the rest of the world is quite different (see Figure 1). Physical imports amount to 3-4  tonnes per capita while physical exports are around 1  tonne per capita.

Figure 1: Physical trade of goods by main material category (tonnes per capita, left Y-axis) and monetary trade of goods (euro per capita, right Y-axis); EU-28, 2000-2018
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_mfa) (nama_10_gdp) (demo_gind)

Up until the start of the financial crisis in 2008, both physical imports and exports grew, more or less, in parallel (see Figure 2). Since then, however, physical exports by and large continued their growth path while physical imports dropped and stagnated for some years. Only recently, physical imports have started to show a slight upward trend, but remain below their pre-crisis levels.

Figure 2: Development of physical imports, exports and trade balance, EU-28, 2000-2018 (Index 2000 = 100)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_mfa)

A closer look at the traded goods in a breakdown by four main material categories (original data are available in a more detailed breakdown by around 50 material categories) reveals a clear asymmetry between physical imports and exports (see Figure 3). Imports of fossil energy materials are most important with more than 2 tonnes per capita —  for this material category physical imports are about four times bigger than exports. Imports assigned to the category of metal ores amount to around 0.5 tonnes per capita and are twice as big as the exports. Physical trade is more balanced for the other categories, namely biomass (around 0.4 tonnes per capita) and non-metallic minerals (around 0.2 tonnes per capita).

Figure 3: Physical imports and exports by main material category, EU-28, 2018 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

Figure 4 shows the physical trade balance (weight of imported goods minus exported goods) for all EU Member States. In physical terms, most EU Member States import more than they export (i.e. net importers). There are only a few net exporting countries, namely Estonia (wood, fossil energy materials) and Latvia (wood).

Figure 4: Physical trade balance (imports minus exports) by country, 2018 (tonnes per capita)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

Physical trade by stage of manufacturing

Eurostat also provides data on physical imports and exports of goods in a breakdown by stage of manufacturing (see Figure 5). A distinction is made between three stages: finished products, semi-finished products and raw products.

The EU's physical exports are dominated by finished products whereas the physical imports are dominated by raw products. The EU economy is specialised in the transformation of low-value raw products into high-value finished and semi-finished products.

More than 60 % of the EU's total physical imports are raw products. While on the other side: about 60 % of EU's total physical exports are finished products. Semi-finished products have a share of about one fourth of both physical imports and exports.

Figure 5: Physical imports and exports by stage of manufacturing, EU-28, 2018_(tonnes per capita)
Source: calculation based on Eurostat (env_ac_mfa) (demo_gind)

Import dependency

As shown above, the EU economy depends on raw materials from the rest of the world. This can be further analysed using economy-wide material flow accounts (EW-MFA). Import dependency, a metric derivable from EW-MFA, denotes the share of physical imports in the direct material input (DMI) of a given economy (the DMI comprises domestic extraction and physical imports).

The import dependency can be broken down by main material categories. Table 1 shows that the EU economy is almost self-sufficient in the supply of non-metallic minerals (construction materials) and biomass with import dependencies of less than 3 % and around 10 %, respectively. For metal ores as well as for fossil energy materials the EU is highly dependent on imports from the rest of the world (more than 50 % and 60 %, respectively).

Table 1: Import dependency by main material category, EU-28, 2000-2018 (% of EU imports in total materials made available to EU-28 economy)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_mid)

Raw material equivalents — towards a global perspective

Material flow accounting is based on the physical weight of extracted, traded or consumed goods. Domestic extraction of material resources is measured in tonnes of gross ore (or gross harvest). Imports and exports are measured in mass weight of goods crossing the border, regardless of how much the traded goods have been processed. The total weight of raw material extractions needed to produce manufactured goods is usually several times greater than the weight of the goods themselves.

Physical imports and exports can be complemented with supplementary estimates of the amounts of raw materials needed to produce traded goods. This can be done by converting the traded goods into their raw material equivalents (RME), i.e. the amount of raw materials that need to be extracted to produce the traded goods in question. More details on imports and exports in RME can be found in the article Material flow accounts statistics - material footprints

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

This article uses data from the economy-wide material flow accounts (EW-MFA), which are one of the European environmental economic accounts. Environmental accounts analyse the interaction between the environment and the economy by organising environmental information in a way that is consistent with the accounting principles of national accounts. This makes it possible to look at many questions, for example: to identify which activities are the most polluting or deplete natural resources the most; what is the role of government and households; how expensive is it to protect the environment and who pays for it; how large is the environmental economy in terms of employment or output; how large are the flows of natural resources and energy. The environmental accounts methodology is in line with the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), which is an international statistical standard.

Economy-wide material flow accounts are based on materials extracted from the environment by national economies (domestic extraction) and by other economies (imports), changes of material stocks within the economy (net additions to stocks), and material outputs to other economies (exports) and/or to the environment (domestic processed output). These accounts are coherent with national accounts in particular concerning the residency of producer units. They cover all solid, gaseous, and liquid materials, except for flows of air and water, which are treated as separate accounts.

Similarly to the national accounts, economy-wide material flow accounts serve multiple purposes. Detailed material flows provide a rich empirical database for numerous analytical studies. They are also used to compile different economy-wide material flow indicators required by policymakers.

Physical imports and exports expressed in raw material equivalents (RME) are not subject to the standard economy-wide material flow accounts and not presented in this article. Eurostat has developed a model to estimate the raw material equivalents of imports and exports for the aggregated EU economy and the results are presented in an article on material flow accounts statistics - material footprints..


Natural resources underpin our economy and our quality of life and many scientists argue that continuing our current patterns of resource use is not an option if the planet is to survive. Increasing resource efficiency is one of the key elements to securing sustainable growth and jobs in the EU and has the potential to bring about economic opportunities, improve productivity, drive down costs and boost competitiveness.

A resource-efficient Europe is one of the flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 strategy: it supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth. It provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas, supporting policy agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. It aims to increase certainty for investment and innovation and to ensure that all relevant policies take account of resource efficiency in a balanced manner. Resource efficiency is the lead indicator of this flagship initiative. Resource efficiency and DMC are indicators derived from economy-wide material flow accounts: Regulation (EU) No 691/2011 on European environmental economic accounts provides a framework for the development of various types of environmental accounts.

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