Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek (file image)
Tanya Plibersek is right in saying Australia has the highest material footprint among G20 members. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS

The shoe fits on Plibersek’s material footprint claim

Joanna Guelas November 24, 2022
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

Australia has the highest material footprint in the G20.

OUR VERDICT

True. An OECD report shows Australia's material footprint is almost 45 tonnes per capita, more than twice the G20 average.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek claims Australia has the highest material footprint – or uses the most primary resources in its economy – than any other G20 member.

The claim is true. A report prepared for the 2021 G20 summit in Rome shows Australia has the largest material footprint per person of the globe’s major economies. Experts confirmed the report is factually correct. 

Ms Plibersek made the claim on November 11, telling ABC Radio National: “We know that Australians are not great recyclers by international standards. We’ve got the highest material footprint in the G20,” Ms Plibersek said (audio mark 5min 26sec).

The claim comes after REDcycle announced it was pausing its soft plastics collections at Woolworths and Coles supermarkets from November 9, leading to calls for more government action to help drive recycling in Australia.

A single use plastic bag (file image)
 The suspension of a soft plastics recycling scheme has highlighted Australia’s use of resources. 

The report, titled Towards a more resource-efficient and circular economy, was prepared by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the G20 summit. It outlines the material footprint per capita of the G20 members – 19 nations and the European Union.

A graph in the report shows Australia tops the group with a material footprint of almost 45 tonnes per capita. Canada is ranked second at 35 tonnes per capita, followed by the United States at 33 tonnes (Page 14 – Figure 5).

The G20 average is around 20 tonnes per capita.

A graph footnote states: “Material footprint accounts for all raw materials needed to satisfy final demand of economies. It takes into account raw materials extracted abroad and embodied in imported goods.”

Heinz Schandl, a CSIRO researcher specialising in natural resource use and efficiency, explained material footprint as describing a country’s demand for primary materials for household and government consumption as well as capital investment in that country.

“For example, to produce a Toyota car requires materials from different parts of the world. When we import that car we can measure the weight and material composition of that car,” Dr Schandl told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“The material footprint measures all the primary material that was needed in the process of production including the materials for the car factory, the energy requirements, and waste that has occurred in the process.”

Dr Schandl said primary material refers to the process of commodifying natural resources when they enter the economic process. This includes crops, timber, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals that are sourced from agriculture, forestry, fishery, mining and quarrying activities.

Manfred Lenzen, a professor of sustainability research at the University of Sydney, said Australia’s large material footprint highlights its material intensive economy and consumer demands – as it’s a consumption-based measure, reflecting a country’s material living standards.

“For Australia, the material footprint is dominated by two consumption areas: construction and manufacturing – in plain English this means the building we do and the stuff we buy,” Professor Lenzen told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“Our level of affluence will mean that our footprint will remain high, relative to the world average.”

The Global Material Flows Database from the UN Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel (UNEP IRP) reveals Australia’s material footprint has been increasing since the 1970s.

Tommy Wiedmann, a professor of sustainability research at UNSW Sydney, said significantly reducing Australia's material footprint will require a downscaling of energy and material. However, these measures have limits.

"Switching to renewable electricity will reduce the use of fossil fuels but it will increase the use of iron ore, bauxite, other metal ores and limestone for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels," Professor Wiedmann told AAP FactCheck in an email.

"Because these clean energy sectors are set to grow very strongly, recycling of metals will also have a limited effect, because it will not be able to keep up with the growing demand for new materials - it can only slow down that increase.

"Whilst it will be possible for Australia to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, this will be very difficult and unlikely for the material footprint."

The Verdict

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek's claim Australia has the highest material footprint in the G20 is true. The claim is based on an OECD report prepared for the 2021 G20 summit. Experts have told AAP FactCheck the claim is scientifically based and factually correct.

True - The claim is accurate.

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