Wikis > Formulation Tools > Material Flow Analysis (MFA)
Primary Source: Ritthoff, M. (2006) Material Flow Analysis Swat Evaluation in Report on the SWOT analysis of concepts, methods, and models potentially supporting LCA. Eds. Schepelmann, Ritthoff & Santman (Wuppertal Institute for Climate and Energy) & Jeswani and Azapagic (University of Manchester), pp 23-31

Application Purpose:

An MFA is concerned with environmental sustainability, focused either on detoxification or dematerialization.


MFA is a tool used at the macro level (region or country). It is concerned with environmental sustainability. It comprises a set of related descriptive and analytical methods which have a common basis for the paradigm of industrial metabolism (Ayres and Simonis 1994, Ayres and Ayres 2002). MFA methodologies are tools for understanding the function of the physical basis of societies. This includes the interlinkages of processes and product chains, and the exchange of materials and energy with the environment. Mass balancing is a common characteristic of MFA.

Classification Schemes:

There have been many different attempts to classify MFA methodologies (e.g. Bringezu and Kleijn 1997, Bringezu and Morigushi 2002, Bringezu et al. 2003, Fischer−Kowalski and Hüttler 1998). Bringezu and Moriguchi (2002) distinguish between two basic strategies according to the primary interest of the analyst.

1)       The first strategy may be characterized as detoxification of the industrial metabolism. This means to reduce the release of hazardous substances to the environment in order to provoke less pollution. Related tools are the substance flow analysis (SFA), the bulk material flows analysis or the life cycle assessment (LCA).

2)       The second strategy could be described as dematerialization of the industrial metabolism. Dematerialization means to increase the resource efficiency by decoupling material use and economic growth, i.e. to produce more (or the same) by simultaneously using less primary material input.

The substance flow analysis (SFA) concentrates on the flow of one specific substance or alimited group of substances potentially harmful to the environment, e.g. heavy metals, through the industrial metabolism. In order to provide quantitative risk analysis the SFA reveals substance’s input pathways, stocks and outputs of the industrial system, regarding chemical, physical and biological transformations under specific temporal and spatial conditions (see also the separate the entry on SFA).

Bulk material flows analysis focuses on base materials for industrial purpose, e.g. timber products and construction materials. The flow of per se rather harmless materials may be linked with other materials flows causing harmful environmental impacts (ecological rucksacks).

SWOT ANALYSIS (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)

Economy-Wide MFA (EW-MFA)

Economy−wide MFA (EW-MFA) is used to analyse the societal metabolism in order to understand how it works. The results are the basis for evaluation and possible structural change (Bringezu et al. 2003). Economy−wide MFA provides an overview of annual material inputs and outputs of an economy including inputs from the national environment and outputs to the environment and the physical amounts of imports and exports (Eurostat 2001). The accounts are in physical units, usually tonnes per year. Economy−wide MFA is based on the mass balance concept and account systematically for all material input and output flows crossing the functional border between economy (technosphere, anthroposphere) and environment. MFA also considers material flows crossing the national (geographical) border, i.e. imports and exports and traces them back to the functional economy−environment border. Economy−wide MFA is supposed to form a physical complement to the monetary System of National Accounts. The mass differences between material inputs and outputs relate to the physical stock changes within the national economy. At the overview level, economy−wide

MFA do not account for the internal material flows within the economy (e.g. between production units). Those are shown in more detail e.g. by Physical Input−Output Tables (PIOT).

Economy−wide MFA accounts for material exchange between national or regional economies and the domestic environment (via resource extraction on the input side and waste deposition, and releases to air and water, dissipative uses and losses (on the output side), and other economies (via trade) through measuring material flows in physical units (in particular metric tons).

In economy−wide MFA a distinction is made between used and unused materials extraction (the latter is not further processed and has no economic value but nevertheless connected to environmental pressures), and between direct and indirect flows. .

Direct flows in EWMF comprise the used part of domestic extraction and the total mass of imported (and exported) commodities via foreign trade. Indirect flows comprise, for example, the upstream resource requirements (used or unused) associated with imported commodities of an economy.

The so−called ‘hidden’ flows (Adriaanse et al. 1997) are either unused domestic extractions moved/removed in order to get access to the wanted raw materials (e.g. mining waste); these are called ‘domestic hidden flows’; or, they are associated with imports and relate to the cradle−to−border primary material requirements which had been necessary to produce the imported good; these are termed ‘foreign hidden flows’, which is in line with the concept of indirect (foreign) flows.

Inputs from the environment (material inputs, MI, used or unused) are defined as the extraction or movement of natural materials on purpose and by humans or human controlled means of technology.

According to the Eurostat methodological guide (Eurostat 2001), the following components are distinguished on the material input side of an economy−wide MFA:

–          Used domestic extraction i.e.: raw material extractions from the domestic environment which are directly used in subsequent economic processing (e.g. fossil fuels, metals, industrial minerals, construction minerals, biomass etc.)

–          Unused domestic extraction (domestic hidden flows): i.e. those primary material inputs associated with the above mentioned used domestic extractions which are not directly used in economic processing (‘hidden’) and hence are not valued economically (overburden), from biomass harvest (discarded by−catch, wood harvesting losses etc.), and soil (and rock) excavation and dredged materials (materials extracted during construction and dredging activities)

–          Imports: i.e. the materials of goods imported to the national economy

–          Indirect flows associated with imports (foreign hidden flows): i.e. the ‘hidden’ cradle−to−border primary resource extractions (used and unused) that have been required to produce the imported good (often referred to as ‘ecological rucksacks’) Each item of the material input account is disaggregated by main materials categories (i.e. fossil fuels, metals, industrial minerals, construction minerals, and biomass).

On the material output side of an economy−wide MFA, the following components are distinguished:

–          Processed outputs to nature i.e. the results of production or consumption processes, classified into:

o   Emissions and waste flows

o   Dissipative use of products and dissipative losses

–          Exports i.e. the materials of exported goods

–          Unprocessed outputs (disposal of unused domestic extraction) equals the unused domestic extraction (domestic hidden flows)

–          Indirect flows associated with exports i.e. the ‘hidden’ lifecycle−wide primary resource extraction that had been required to produce the exported good (often referred to as ‘ecological rucksacks’)

Air and water are not included in the accounts, but they are used as balancing items to maintain equal input and output mass quantification with regard to the second law of thermodynamics (e.g. oxygen input of emissions to the air or water output of biomass consumption).


MFA provides an overview of the metabolism of the economy, and retrospective analysis of the dynamics of volume and structure and EW-MFA provides the link between economic activities of a national economy and environmental impacts through pressure indicators, either on the output side (e.g. emissions) or on the input side (e.g. TMR).

MFA allows quantifying the physical growth of the technosphere as an indicator of future waste volumes and of the distance from flow equilibrium (which is one precondition of a sustainable situation).

Domestic and foreign material flows associated with domestic activities can be accounted for in order to detect shifts of environmental burden and of dependence on foreign resources. EW-MFA reveals information on the physical dimension of foreign trade.

Beside this content related aspects, EW-MFA is a:

–     Quite mature methodology: it has been standardised by Eurostat (2001);

–     EW-MFA is a robust method that has been applied in peer reviewed papers,;

–     It is consistent with material balance principle; data availability: data are publicly available.

An EW-MFA integrates quantitative information scattered in different accounts into a coherent balance account and thus also allows consistency checks in the underlying statistics (Eurostat 2001).

In the field of consequential approaches it is necessary to take into account the complex system of relations from the micro to the meso/macro level. At present, in ISO-LCA, such physical constraints are not taken into account: thus, this could be considered as a contribution from the MFA.


Concerning technological potentials for optimization, MFA is limited and micro level analysis are additional needed but, combining MFA with micro level analysis (LCA, KEA or MIPS) is limited by several incompatibilities e.g. system boundaries, allocation rules (Schütz / Ritthoff 2006).

The indicators are pressure indicators; they do not tell anything about specific impacts in terms of changes of the state of environment (neither output nor input related pressures do so) and bulk material flow indicators may not be used to indicate substance specific pressures. Unused extraction may have different impacts than further processed materials with regard to the subsequent outputs; therefore, the information on overall inputs should be complemented by the information on critical outputs. For this aspect a complementary approach may be chosen by integrating material input indicators with indicators e.g. for greenhouse gas emissions.

A complete material balance for an economy is statistically difficult to achieve since not all material input and output flows are observed in a systematic way. Some material flow categories must be estimated and available data complemented by additional estimates (Eurostat 2001). The level of detail depends on the accounting categories, that is, the classification and aggregation of inputs and outputs.

Data availability and accuracy of hidden flows of imports and exports is lower than for domestic material flows. Hence, efforts should be undertaken on the international level to improve the database for unused and indirect flows. And the comparability of data sets across countries is limited.

MFA analysis are in general based on statistics and therefore retrospective

Concerning the renewables based on biomass there is a need to further qualify and quantify unsustainable and sustainable cultivation.

Opportunities for broadening and deepening LCA

MFA data can be used by other methods, which require quantitative units and indicators. This would link MFA to a number of impact assessment instruments and application frameworks, especially scenario tools, multi criteria analysis, environmental appraisal methodologies, transition management, stakeholder analysis and modelling.

There is a direct connection to monetary assessment tools. EW-MFA has been developed as a biophysical complement to economic accounts and hence is widely compatible with the accounting rules and conventions as laid down in the System of National Accounts (Bringezu 2003). Combining both types of information – as proposed by the UN System of Integrated Economic and Environmental Accounts (SEEA) (United Nations et al. 2003) – supports integrated macroeconomic and environmental analyses.

MFA can be used as a basis to analyse the physical turnover of an economic system (from the micro to the macro level). On this basis it is possible to determine socially acceptable targets for resource use especially with the aim of decoupling environmental pressures from economic development. The objective of decoupling environmental pressure from economic growth has been formulated by the European Council and the European Commission (see European Commission: Thematic Strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources 2005). It is also followed by several EU Member States. By decoupling resource use from economic growth a considerable reduction of environmental pressure can be expected. To which extent this might impact on the economic and ecological systems is subject of further research. This implies on the one hand better integration with econometric modelling and on the other hand improved coupling with life−cycle analysis and other physical assessment methods.

Status quo and current trends do not indicate a possibly sustainable future situation; for that purpose integrated scenarios and prospective modelling is required.

The use of MFA data to determine overall environmental pressure is not only supported by EU−Member States activities, but also with the recommendation of the OECD Council on Material Flows and resource productivity endorsed by environment ministers on 20 April 2004 and adopted by the OECD Council on 21 April 2004 (OECD 2004). In 2008 guidance documents on methodological and measurement issues related to material flow analysis (MFA), including the development of material flow accounts and related indicators has been published by the OECD. With the further diffusion of MFA in OECD countries it will be possible to measure and compare to which extent decoupling takes place in industrial societies. The monitoring results can be a basis for planning targeted policy interventions. For this purpose research on innovation and governance to increase resource productivity should be intensified.

Threats for broadening and deepening LCA approaches

MFA is a macro method, it can include information from the meso level (branches) but it does not include detailed information on technologies and production side specific aspects. Therefore it is inadequate for the identification of technological potentials on the meso and micro level. MFA gives an indication of the resource productivity of an overall economy, but it is not suitable for the optimization of single production systems. The identification of specific technological potentials on the macro level is impossible but there is still the risk that decision makers can ignore this limitation of EW-MFA.

Literature/Internet links

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Ayres, R.U. and L.W. Ayres (1998), ‘Accounting for resources, 1: economy−wide applications of mass−balance principles to materials and waste’, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Ayres, R.U. and U.E. Simonis (eds.) (1994), ‘Industrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development’, Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Barbiero, G., S. Camponeschi, A. Femia, G. Greca, A, Macri, A. Tudini and M. Vannozzi (2003), ‘1980−1998 material−input−based indicators time series and 1997 material balance of the Italian economy’, Rome: ISTAT (Instituto Nazinale di Statistica).

Bringezu, S. (1993), ‘Towards increasing resource productivity: how to measure the total material consumption of regional or national economies?’, Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 2, 419−24.

Bringezu, S. (2002a), ‘Industrial ecology: Material flow analyses for sustainable resource management in the European Union’, in R.U. Ayres and L. Ayres (eds.) Handbook of Industrial Ecology, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 288−300.

Bringezu, S. (2002b), ‘Material flow analysis between substance specific considerations and the assessment of the total metabolism: indicators for sustainable resource management’, in W. Kuckshinrichs and K.−L. Hüttner (eds), Nachhaltiges Management metallischer Stoffströme, Forschungszentrum Jülich, 157−81.

Bringezu, S. (2002c), ‘Material flow analysis: unveiling the physical basis of economies’, in Bartelmus, P. (ed) Unveiling wealth: on money, quality of life and sustainability, Dordrecht: Kluver, 109−34.

Bringezu, S. and H. Schütz (1995), ‘Wie mißt man die ökologische Zukunftsfähigkeit einer Volkswirtschaft? Ein Beitrag der Stoffstrombilanzierung am Beispiel der Bundesrepublik Deutschland [How to measure the ecological sustainability of an economy? A contribution of materials flow accounting for the example of Germany]’, in S. Bringezu and S. Schütz Neue Ansätze der Umweltstatistik [New approaches to environmental statistics], Berlin, Basel, Boston: Birkhäuser.

Bringezu, S. and H. Schütz (1996), ‚Der ökologische Rucksack des Ruhrgebiets – Ein Vergleich mit Nordrhein−Westfalen und der Bundesrepublik Deutschland [The ecological rucksack of the Ruhr area – A Commission of the European Communities, DG Eurostat.

Bundesregierung: Perspektiven für Deutschland – Unsere Strategie für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung, Berlin 2002

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OECD: Measuring material flows and resource productivity, Volume I. – III. The OECD Guide, 2008

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Van der Voet, E., van Oers, L., Moll, S., Schütz, H., Bringezu, S., de Bruyn, S., Sevenster, M., Warringa, G. (2004): Policy Review on Decoupling: Development of indicators to assess decoupling of economic development and environmental pressure in the EU−25 and AC−3 countries. CML report 166. Institut of Environmental Sciences (CML), Leiden University − Department Industrial Ecology.

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Moll, S., S. Bringezu and H. Schütz (2003), ‘Resource use in European countries: an estimate of materials and waste streams in the Community, including the imports and export using the instrument of material flowanalysis, Zero study’, European Topic Centre on Waste and Material Flows, Copenhagen

Femina, A, S. Moll (2005): Use of MFA−related family of tools in environmental policy−making. Overview of possibilities, limitations and existing examples of application in practice. European Environmental Agency. Copenhagen.