Vincent Moreau and Guillaume Massard
The concept of metabolism takes root in biology and ecology as a systematic way to account for material flows in organisms and ecosystems. Early applications of the concept attempted to quantify the amount of water and food the human body processes to live and sustain itself. Similarly, ecologists have long studied the metabolism of critical substances and nutrients in ecological succession towards climax. With industrialization, the material and energy requirements of modern economic activities have grown exponentially, together with emissions to the air, water and soil. From an analogy with ecosystems, the concept of metabolism grew into an analytical methodology for economic systems.
Research in the field of material flow analysis has developed approaches to modeling economic systems by assessing the stocks and flows of substances and materials for systems defined in space and time. Material flow analysis encompasses different methods: industrial and urban metabolism, input–output analysis, economy-wide material flow accounting, socioeconomic metabolism, and more recently material flow cost accounting. Each method has specific scales, reference substances such as metals, and indicators such as concentration. A material flow analysis study usually consists of a total of four consecutive steps: (a) system definition, (b) data acquisition, (c) calculation, and (d) interpretation. The law of conservation of mass underlies every application, which implies that all material flows, as well as stocks, must be accounted for.
In the early 21st century, material depletion, accumulation, and recycling are well-established cases of material flow analysis. Diagnostics and forecasts, as well as historical or backcast analyses, are ideally performed in a material flow analysis, to identify shifts in material consumption for product life cycles or physical accounting and to evaluate the material and energy performance of specific systems.
In practice, material flow analysis supports policy and decision making in urban planning, energy planning, economic and environmental performance, development of industrial symbiosis and eco industrial parks, closing material loops and circular economy, pollution remediation/control and material and energy supply security. Although material flow analysis assesses the amount and fate of materials and energy rather than their environmental or human health impacts, a tacit assumption states that reduced material throughputs limit such impacts.