Dematerialization and Technology:  Not always instep.

Posted by Laurie Schroeder

Mar 8, 2017 2:58:30 PM

We have become such a consumable culture- it doesn't matter if what we have is still usable, society encourages us to buy the newest and latest models of everything from cars to phones and everything in between.  

In our efforts to become more technologically advanced, we haven’t totally figured out how to be better stewards of our available environmental resources.  Attempts to ‘dematerialize’ or reduce use of natural resources through technology have not kept up with developments and improvements to many products currently being used today.

While some scientists believe that the world can achieve significant dematerialization through improvements in technology, a recent MIT led study revealed that technological advances alone will not bring about dematerialization and, ultimately, a sustainable world.

The researchers found that no matter how much more efficient and compact a product is made, consumers will only demand more of that product and in the long run increase the total amount of materials used in making that product.

Take, for instance, one of the world's fastest-improving technologies: silicon-based semiconductors. Over the last few decades, technological improvements in the efficiency of semiconductors have greatly reduced the amount of material needed to make a single transistor. As a result, today's smartphones, tablets, and computers are far more powerful and compact than computers built in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, the researchers find that consumers' demand for silicon has outpaced the rate of its technological change, and that the world's consumption of silicon has grown by 345 percent over the last four decades. As others have found, by 2005, there were more transistors used than printed text characters.

The researchers found similar trends in 56 other materials, goods, and services, from basic resources such as aluminum and formaldehyde to hardware and energy technologies such as hard disk drives, transistors, wind energy, and photovoltaics. In all cases, they found no evidence of dematerialization, or an overall reduction in their use, despite technological improvements to their performance.

The researchers looked at 57 other common goods and services, including widely used chemical components such as ammonia, formaldehyde, polyester fiber, and styrene, along with hardware and energy technologies such as transistors, laser diodes, crude oil, photovoltaics, and wind energy.  Despite seeing technological improvements in almost all cases, they failed to find a single case in which dematerialization -- an overall reduction in materials -- was taking place.

In follow-up work, the researchers were eventually able to identify six cases in which an absolute decline in materials usage has occurred. However, these cases mostly include toxic chemicals such as asbestos and thallium, whose dematerialization was due not to technological advances, but to government intervention.

There was one other case in which researchers observed dematerialization: wool. The material's usage has significantly fallen, due to innovations in synthetic alternatives, such as nylon and polyester fabrics. The researches feel in this case that substitution, and not dematerialization, has occurred. In other words, wool has simply been replaced by another material to fill the same function.

So what will it take to reduce our materials consumption and achieve a sustainable world?

"What it's going to take is much more difficult than just letting technological change do it," leading researcher Christopher L. Magee says. "Social and cultural change, people talking to each other, cooperating, might do it. That's not the way we're going right now, but that doesn't mean we can't do it."

However, others are more hopeful that technology will bring about sustainability, albeit at significant cost.

Topics: going green