Domenech T. and Van Ewijk S.
Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London, UK

Keywords: Material Flow Analysis; WEEE; paper flows; extension of product life; policy interventions.

Abstract: Material consumption is an important driver for environmental pollution. Total material throughput can be reduced through the extension of product life. The paper suggests Material Flow Analysis (MFA) as a method to assess the potential material throughput reductions due to increased product longevity. The method is applied to the case of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) and paper products. The paper first collates data from different sources to give an overview of material inputs and outputs for both material/product categories in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, it reviews the literature for a selection of interventions and calculates the potential savings in the total material throughput. For EEE, the analysis emphasises the issue of optimal life times that need to balance the impact generated in the production phase and during the use of the product. For paper, a key issue is the practical limitations on reusing a material that is easily damaged and worn. It is concluded that there is considerable potential for MFA in estimating the impacts of product life extension on material throughput although limitations in data availability and quality are acknowledged.


Material consumption is associated with important environmental impacts (Fischer- Kowalski and Swilling, 2011). In the United Kingdom only, annual consumption is estimated at around 600 megatons, about 40% of which is discarded as waste (Eurostat, 2015a, 2015b). Much of the policy emphasis has been put on recycling but extending the use life of products, and also of the materials contained in them, could play an equally important role in reducing the environmental impacts of consumption and the preservation of natural resources.

Longevity can be understood as the interval between the point in time where the products come into the market to the point in time where they are discarded and turned into waste. Longevity can play an important role in reducing consumption and waste, but it is little understood, since it relates to dimensions of design, business models, manufacturing, behaviour, waste management, and many different factors and drivers. Material Flow Analysis (MFA)1 can help understand some of these aspects.

This paper analyses two main areas of concern: electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) and paper and paper products. The consumption of EEE is on the rise globally, especially in developing countries. The amount of discarded computers in China and South Africa is expected to increase with 500% in 2020 compared to 2007 levels (Schuelp et al., 2009) and substantial increases are also expected in other emerging economies (Wang et al., 2012). In the United Kingdom, the EEE market has grown rapidly in the last years and waste arisings have increased correspondingly (Eurostat, 2015c). EEE contain important valuable metals, such as copper, and critical metals, such as palladium (He et al., 2006; Reck and Graedel, 2012). They also contain many hazardous substances that can lead to important health and environmental risks if improperly managed (Huang et al., 2009).

Paper is a relevant material given its high impact in terms of life cycle carbon emissions and its high annual conversion rate into waste compared to other important material categories such as steel and plastics (Allwood et al., 2010). At the same time, paper is generally perceived as a success story in terms of recycling, with the European recycling rates being at around 70% (CEPI, 2012), and is a role model for the sharing economy in the form of libraries. Environmental impacts of paper include carbon emissions and dioxins released during production as well as methane emissions from landfills.

This paper aims to show the utility of MFA for assessing the impact of longevity on total material throughput by applying tailored MFAs to two case studies representing very different material/product categories. The paper has been structured as follows. Section 2 reviews some of the literature on longevity and section 3 explains MFA. Section 4 analyses material flows and suggests interventions for EEE and paper. The article wraps up with discussion (section 6) and conclusions (section 7).


The paper uses Material Flow Analysis to link specific practical interventions to reductions in total throughput. Material flow analysis is a systematic assessment of flows and stocks within a predefined system (Brunner and Rechberger, 2004). The results of MFA are commonly visually presented in Sankey diagrams, which have their origins in thermal engineering, and that provide a tool to compare actual flows with desired flows in a visually intuitive way (Schmidt, 2008).

Sankey Diagram of EEE:WEEE product flows in the UK in 2010

Extended use life is the delay between the time point when the product entered the market and the time point at which the product becomes waste. This has a number of implications in terms of waste management as waste arising will depend on the lifespan distribution of different products and the material composition of waste, especially for products with longer than average use-life and those that have undergone substantial design changes over the years (for example in the concentration of hazardous substances).

In addition, longevity or the extension of average use life has also other important implications in terms of potential savings of virgin raw materials and the transition to more circular models, where resources maintain their prime function for longer and are recycled at the end of the use life to recover valuable resources contained in them. Extending product life thus affects both virgin inputs, waste outputs, and material throughput of the economy.

WEEE Material composition in the UK 2010 for large household appliances

Paper flows in the UK in 2012


This section presents the findings from the MFA for EEE and paper and paper products. It subsequently discusses potential interventions for extending the life of products and calculates their impact on resource throughput.

Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE)

Material flow analysis of EEE

Figure 1 depicts the material flows for the UK for 2010 1 . The lifespan distribution is not considered. The diagram shows a big discrepancy between the weights of the products put on the market and WEEE collected. Even in the absence of a lifetime distribution of products, this seems to point to a large quantity of materials that are either collected together with mixed household waste, exported as second hand goods, hoarded or just illegally dumped. Only in the first case, that WEEE undergoes appropriate treatment.

Figure 2 provides an idea of the material composition of EEE/WEEE for the category large household appliances, based on the combination of WEEE data and material composition data. Material composition data has been obtained from the literature and a WRAP study published in 2012 EEE (Huisman et al., 2007; Wrap, 2012). The data has been compared with other literature sources on material composition for other developed countries, significantly Japan, to check for consistency (Oguchi et al., 2013; Tasaki et al., 2007), although a sensitivity analysis has not been undertaken as it is out of the scope of this paper.

Interventions in the EEE cycle

Extending first use life: extending warranties

Extending the technical use life of large household appliances could bring important reductions in the throughput of the UK. Extending first use life needs to consider the potential trade-offs between material saving and energy consumption, as it is expected that new appliances would be more energy efficient.

Kim et al. (2006) have looked at the optimal life time of fridges taken into account this trade off. According to their analysis, optimal lifetimes for fridges ranged from 2-7 years for the energy objective and 2-11 years for the Global Warming Potential (GWP) based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and dynamic programming. Also, given that energy efficiency has improved substantially in recent years, it is expected that optimal life has increased as the marginal energy efficiency improvements are expected to reduce over time.

In order to avoid potential trade-offs between energy and resource efficiency this intervention would have to consider introducing changes in the design of fridges and increasing modularity and upgradability. This intervention could significantly reduce demand of primary resources and waste generation.

Given that the average life of fridges is around 11-14 years (Bakker et al., 2014; Oguchi et al., 2013), further research is needed to assess the desirability of prolonging the use life of these type of appliances if we consider energy implications. However, if we consider that 8- 10% of large household appliances break within the first 5 years due to early failure of some of the components (Oeko-Institut, 2015), extending warranties to five years for all large household appliances and ensuring the availability of replacements for a longer period of time could bring material savings of around 70 kilo-tonnes, and saving of approximately 4.5% of the total material throughout. This savings could be in the region of around 85 kilotonnes if we also consider small household appliances, and around 5.5% of the total material throughput.

Extending the total use life: upgradability of products

Another approach to extent the total life time of EEE would be extending the second use life of the appliance through repair, reuse and remanufacturing. Although there is very little research on the opportunities to increase reuse and repair of fridges, a recent study by WRAP considered that about 23% of the discarded appliances could be reused with very little repair. Again here the issue of the trade-offs between energy and resource efficiency need to be considered.

A 23% increase in the reuse of large household appliances such as fridges could bring material savings in the region of 160 kilotonnes, and about 10% of the material throughput. This though requires of the establishment of well- developed repair and reuse networks that provide guarantee to the consumer about the safety and performance of reused goods.

Remanufacturing, reuse and recycling of components

The third proposed intervention looks at extending the life of the components through remanufacturing and recycling of materials and use as a source of secondary materials. A study on appliance remanufacturing and energy savings estimated that total raw material processing and manufacturing of a mid-size fridge required 4,442 MJ to 6,847 MJ. Driven by legislative pressure. the energy consumption of fridges during the use phase have varied considerably ranging from 180 GJ for a model in 1974 to 50 GJ for a model in 2008 (Boustani et al., 2010)

The same studies concluded that remanufacturing would indeed have been a more energy consuming option since 1974 up to 2001. During this period, important increases in energy efficiency outpace energy savings associated to raw material processing in the remanufacturing. The study, however, also points that when comparing a 2001 and 2008 model, the energy savings of remanufacturing would break even with the energy savings associated to energy efficiency of newer models, given the slower pace of improvements. A 20% increase in the remanufacturing of large household appliances could bring material savings of about 140 kilo- tonnes and about 9% of the total material throughput for EEE.

Paper and paper products

Material flow analysis of paper

The calculation of the paper flows is based on waste data, production and consumption data, and forestry data. Figure 2 shows the paper flows for the United Kingdom in the year 2010 including imports, exports and a recycling loop. The Sankey diagram uses the waste generation and treatment data from Eurostat, supplemented with industry statistics (PPL Research Ltd, 2012) and a government publication on forestry and paper (Forestry Commission, 2011). Most of the paper consumed in the UK is imported and some of the domestic production is exported. A roughly equal proportion of paper waste is exported and domestically recycled.

The Sankey diagram reveals a relatively large discrepancy between inputs and outputs to production. This is probably due to the inputs being measured as green tonnes (including water) of imported pulp and wood. Also, some of the paper waste generated in production might not be accounted as such but instead as mixed wastes. The small discrepancy between inputs and outputs of the consumption phase represent two things: additions to stock and unaccounted paper waste that may be found in “mixed waste” flows in Eurostat. The data does not allow distinguishing between the two options.

Interventions in the paper cycle

Lending and second-hand buying of books

Books are among the most popular goods to be shared or sold second hand. According to a study by Maki (1999), as cited by (Heiskanen and Jalas, 2003), library books in Finland are used 60 times on average and constitute a saving of 32.000 tonnes of paper compared to the alternative of new sales. If libraries in the UK where to increase their stocks, the average amount of users may increase when it concerns top titles (which are currently easier to get by buying them) or if they expand into more marginal categories. Either way there is a large potential for dematerialization in the book sector through the extension of libraries.

If the number of 60 is valid, then total physical UK book sales could be reduced with 50% by only increasing the annual purchases of public libraries with about 20%, assuming privately held books are read only once.

The best weight estimate for an average paper book is suggested to be 600 grams (Borggren et al., 2011) and the total consumer sales in 2010 is estimated to be 339 million copies (The Publishers Association, 2012). Consumer books make up 1.8% of the total mass flow of paper in the United Kingdom. An increase of library stocks with 20% and an associated reduction of consumer book sales with 50% could thus reduce the overall paper flow with about 0.9%. The practical potential would however be much lower.

Un-printing office paper

For office paper, promising advances have been made regarding the “repairing” of paper through un-printing technology. Un-printing may involve the use of special ink or paper although a laser ablation process has been shown to work on regular paper and ink. The potential for un-printing to reduce material throughput seems very high. For the “e-blue” technology (Counsell and Allwood, 2007) estimate that un-printing could reduce energy use and carbon emissions with 86% and 95% per tonne of office paper. This reduction is realized because all other stages in paper production can be cut out. With the latest technology, that allows un-printing up to five times, the throughput of office paper could potentially be reduced with 80%.

The consumption of cut size paper is about 5% of total paper and board consumption (PPL Research Ltd, 2012) and about 75% of cut size paper is used in offices (Hekkert et al., 2002) where such technology could be easily installed. The share of paper suitable for un- printing is thus around 4% and un-printing could reduce the total paper flow about 3% if paper were to be un-printed about five times on average.

Extended use of paper packaging

Paper packaging is a notoriously difficult to reuse since it is easily damaged in the process of use. Yet paper is a popular packaging material. About one third of the total packaging waste stream in the United Kingdom consists of paper (Eurostat, 2015d). For instance for white goods the share of paper in packaging material can range from 16% to 77%, with large appliances like freezers consistently featuring more than a kilogram of paper packaging per product (WRAP, 2007).

One way to increase the lifetime of packaging is by replacing paper packaging by more durable plastics packaging, especially in non- consumer environments. However, when consumers are involved, paper is often preferred because of its aesthetic qualities; research suggests that consumers associate paper bags more strongly with an attractive appearance than plastic bags (Prendergast et al., 2001). Based on the same survey in Hong Kong, the article suggest that paper bags are in fact more likely to be reused than plastic bags.

The potential for reuse of paper packaging is very difficult to assess. Uniquely shaped and printed paper packaging has little potential for reuse, generic boxes and board (from for instance furniture packaging and appliances) may in fact be reused for slightly varying purposes, and paper bags could be used many times to carry different things. The durability of the packaging is key, as well as the print, which could influence reuse depending on “fashionableness” of the depicted brand.

Most studies on environmentally friendly packaging however suggest the replacement of paper packaging by reusable plastic packaging. Such plastic packaging has lower environmental impacts when used once. A study of different types of shopping bags in China, Hong Kong, and India showed that paper bags had the highest life cycle carbon impact. At the same time, the authors point at reuse as an opportunity for significant reduction of carbon impacts (Muthu et al., 2011). As such, when it comes to carbon emissions, paper packaging can only compete with plastic alternatives if it is reused significantly more than plastic alternatives.


This paper has studied the potential for using material flow analysis for assessing possible reductions in total material throughput through the extension of product life. In particular, it assessed the potential of increasing product longevity for the case of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) and paper products. The analysis shows that there is considerable potential for MFA in estimating the impacts of product life extension although more data is needed.

The paper first used data from different sources to give an overview of material inputs and outputs for both material/product categories. Subsequently, it drew on the literature for a selection of interventions and calculated the potential savings in the total material throughput. For EEE, a key issue was the idea of optimal life times based on pollution caused by the production and use of the product. For paper, a key issue are the practical limitations on reusing a material that is easily damaged and worn.

The conclusions are two-fold. First, it has been shown that certain interventions are likely to reduce material throughput for EEE and paper and could thus reduce environmental pollution. Second, the use of material flow analysis has proven fruitful in calculating the potential material throughput savings for the interventions. Further work should focus on the collection of more detailed data for mixed waste streams and EEE exports, demand substitution, and other product and material categories than EEE and paper.


We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on the abstract. The Sankey diagram was made partly using an online tool available at


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