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A man watches as workers stack logs at a wood processing facility outside of Kisumu, Kenya.
Peter Kapuscinski / World Bank
Environment

The World Is Now Consuming More Than 100 Billion Tonnes of Materials Every Year

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Natural resources form the basis of economies and livelihoods around the world. The United Nations urges countries to be better stewards of the natural world to ensure its long-term health as part of Global Goal 13 for climate action. You can join us in taking action on this issue here

Humanity is now consuming more than 100 billion tonnes of materials annually through unsustainable resource extraction that’s causing immense harm to the global environment, according to a new report.

The report, released by the nonprofit Circle Economy, says that resource consumption has quadrupled around the world since 1970, with the average person now consuming an estimated 13 tonnes per year. The rate of increase has been accelerating in recent years — resource consumption doubled between 2013 and 2017.

Minerals and ores, like gold and iron, account for the majority of resources used annually, while fossil fuels account for 15%, and crops and trees nearly 25%.

The report’s data comes from 2017, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, according to the Guardian

The authors of the report argue that countries need to more effectively recycle materials, while also drastically cut back on resource extraction. Otherwise, the planet will no longer be able to reliably supply humanity’s demands.

In fact, the world would need 1.75 planets to sustain its current rates of resource extraction. 

"We risk global disaster if we continue to treat the world’s resources as if they are limitless," Harald Friedl, the chief executive of Circle Economy, told the Guardian. "Governments must urgently adopt circular economy solutions if we want to achieve a high quality of life for close to 10bn people by mid-century without destabilising critical planetary processes."

Circular economy solutions would look at ways to reuse as many materials extracted from the planet as possible, in turn creating a circular system of production and consumption, in which waste is minimized and true sustainability is achieved. 

The report highlights a major opportunity for improved recycling standards. Of the more than 100 billion tonnes of materials that are used each year, just 8.6% are recycled. More than 50%, meanwhile, gets thrown into landfills or discarded in environments. 

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If countries did a better job at tracking, collecting, and then delivering natural resources to recycling facilities, then the amount of virgin materials needed each year would decline, allowing natural environments to recover from constant extractive efforts, according to the report. 

Companies can spur this transition by demanding only recycled materials, while consumers can put pressure on companies by buying only sustainable goods. 

The alternative is ever-increasing resource extraction putting exponential strain on natural environments. 

The costs are already evident around the world. Forests are being lost as the demand for fresh wood rises, coastal environments are being destroyed as boats dredge for fresh sand, multinational mining expeditions are poisoning waterways and ravaging ecosystems. 

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The ongoing extraction of fossil fuels, meanwhile, is threatening the very future of the planet by accelerating climate change. 

The United Nations has continually sounded the alarm on unsustainable levels of resource extraction. 

"We are ploughing through this planet's finite resources as if there is no tomorrow, causing climate change and biodiversity loss along the way," Joyce Msyua, acting head of UN Environment, said in a UN report from last year. "Frankly, there will be no tomorrow for many people unless we stop."