The EU’s Eighth Environment Action Programme aims to significantly decrease the EU’s material footprint, that is, the amount of raw material extracted to manufacture the goods and services consumed. The per capita material footprint remained stable over the 2010-2022 period. In 2022 the raw material extraction was 14.8 tonnes per capita which is considered not sustainable and higher than the global average. It appears unlikely that the EU will significantly reduce the per capita material footprint in the coming decade as there has been no progress so far, while projections show an increase in the future demand for materials in the EU. Major effort is needed to reduce material extraction and consumption, and switch to goods and services that require less material.

Figure 1. EU material footprint, expressed in tonnes per capita of raw material equivalent per capita
EU material footprint, expressed in tonnes per capita of raw material equivalent per capita

The EU’s material footprint refers to the amount of material extracted from nature, both inside and outside the EU, to manufacture or provide the goods and services consumed by EU citizens. The Eighth Environment Action Programme calls for a significant decrease in the EU’s material footprint to safeguard precious natural resources and because the extraction and processing of these resources has significant environmental impacts, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

From 2010 to 2022, the EU per capita material footprint remained stable. In 2020, the material footprint fell markedly by 5.7% to 13.7 tonnes — heavily influenced by the economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but it increased again by 7.2% in 2021. Of the various material groups, consumption of non-metallic minerals is the highest, accounting for 51% of the footprint in 2022; changes in consumption in this group were largely responsible for the overall trend. Biomass was the next largest group (21%), followed by fossil fuels (18%) and metals (10%). The share of fossil fuels has been decreasing (23% in 2010), while the share of non-metallic minerals increased from 46% in 2010. Although non-metallic minerals account for a large part of the total material footprint, they have less of an impact on the environment and climate than metals and fossil fuels, relative to their shares of the material footprint as they are mainly composed of relatively inert material such as gravel, limestone etc. .

The material footprint provides a comprehensive measure of all materials extracted to satisfy consumption demand in the EU, including materials extracted outside the EU and then imported. The demand for metals and fossil fuels is met mainly by imports, while the demand for biomass and non-metallic minerals is met mainly by domestic extraction (see the EU’s Raw Material Information System for more information). The proportion of the material footprint accounted for by imports increased from 48% in 2010 to 51% in 2020. This indicates a growing reliance by the EU on other countries to satisfy its need for materials.

The EU’s total material footprint is above the global average and far greater than those of low- and middle-income non-EU countries. This level of resource consumption exceeds the planet’s ‘safe operating space’ for resource extraction, meaning that, if the world were to consume resources at the level of the EU, the capacity of the planet to provide these resources would be exceeded.

The material footprint could be reduced by decreasing consumption or choosing goods or services whose production or provision needs less material. Various circular economy policies (as part of the EU circular economy action plan) aim to reduce the need for primary material extraction, by keeping materials in the economy for as long as possible while keeping their value as high as possible, and boosting high-quality recycling.

Discounting the temporary dip in 2020, there has been no other sign of a reduction in the material footprint since 2010. Furthermore, available projections for material use, such as the OECD Global Material Resources Outlook, predict an increased future demand for materials in the EU by 2030 . Therefore, at present, it appears unlikely that the EU will significantly reduce its material footprint in the coming decade. It should, however, be noted that the OECD outlook results predate, and therefore do not reflect, the various policies that have recently been adopted by the EU and which aim to temper demand for primary material extraction.

Figure 2. EU Member States’ material footprints in 2010 and 2022
EU Member States’ material footprints in 2010 and 2022

Material footprints vary substantially across EU countries, from 6.6 tonnes/capita in Malta to 46.0 tonnes/capita in Finland. Since 2010, 13 of the 27 Member States have reduced their material footprints, with Malta, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Spain reducing their footprints by more than 30%. On the other hand, Romania, Denmark, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary’s material footprints have increased by more than 50%.

Switzerland is the only non-EU country that is a member of the European Environment Agency and for which data are available, and it reduced its material footprint between 2010 and 2022.

Differences in the material footprints among countries are difficult to explain, as they are based on citizens’ consumption patterns and also on the structure and efficiency of the economy. However, elements such as high levels of circularity (see EEA indicator on the circular material use rate) in the national economy are particularly important. High levels of circularity partly explain the low footprint value in, for instance, the Netherlands, which has the second lowest material footprint in the EU and also the highest circular material use rate.