Material Flow Analysis: a tool to support environmental policy decision making. Case-studies on the city of Vienna and the Swiss lowlands

This paper discusses the use of Material Flow Analysis (MFA) as a tool to support policy decision making in the field of resource and environmental management. In terms of policy, MFA can be used for early recognition, priority setting, to analyse and improve the effectiveness of measures and to design efficient material management strategies in view of sustainability. MFA has a high potential to be implemented as a guiding tool at the regional level, for example as part of a regional environmental management and audit system or as a part of the Local Agenda 21 process. Material management based on MFA is complementary to traditional environmental and resource management strategies, which have tended to focus heavily on specific environmental compartments, and measure the concentration of substances in various media. MFA, in contrast, provides an overview of the total system by linking the anthroposphere (that part of the biosphere in which humans' activities take place) with the environment. This system approach shifts the focus away from the back-end so-called 'filter strategies' to more pro-active front-end measures. MFA examines short- and long-term loadings rather than concentrations and highlights current and potential material accumulations, called material stocks. These stocks represent either potential environmental problems (e.g. large stocks of hazardous materials) or a potential source of future resources (e.g. urban mining). In this way, MFA can assist precautionary policy making by highlighting future environmental or resource issue problems without relying on signals of environmental stress. The objective of materials management is: firstly, to analyse material flows and stocks; secondly, to evaluate these results; and thirdly, to control material flows in view of certain goals such as sustainable development. MFA is an excellent tool for the first objective and is well suited to generate a base for the other two objectives. MFA results can be compared against environmental standards or can be interpreted using assessment or indicator methodologies (such as environmental impact assessment or ecological footprints). Selected results from two studies, carried out for the city of Vienna (substance management) and the Swiss lowlands (timber management), illustrate the use of MFA as a tool for early recognition (resource depletion and environmental quality), for priority setting and for effective policy making.