Territorial Metabolism through the Life Cycle of Products

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This page is drawn from an oral presentation holded by Benoit Ribon on 6th September during the LCM 2017 Conference Cycle in Luxembourg. Please feel free to add any comment or ask question with the form at the bottom of this page. All questions will be answered.


The development of our societies is facing sustainability issues. Resources extraction and waste emissions (including greenhouse gas emissions) have reached unsustainable levels, resulting in worrisome loss of ecosystem services and rarefaction of resources. Thus, assessment of human activity impacts has become a requirement for environmental researchers and practitioners. The goal is to reduce theses impacts, without compromising a sufficient quality of life to which people aspire. Urban metabolism (UM) is one of the mature approaches for assessing theses impacts. From its creation by Wolman in 1965, to its many recent developments, urban metabolism “has likely become the single most important comprehensive metric for urban sustainability” (Hoornweg et al. 2012).

The concept of UM is to compare a city to a living organism and to focus on its inputs needs (in the form of goods, material or energy), their local transformation, and the ensuing outputs (waste or exported goods). The metaphoric comparison ends here but the concept is pertinent to tackle environmental issues: most, if not all, are a result of too high and more or less toxic material flows from our anthropic ecosystems to the natural one, and vice versa. UM research has adapted material flow analysis guidelines at city and regional scale. This area is contemplated as a black-box where inputs and outputs are quantified, but few internal flows are known due to the complexity of data retrieval and analysis (Kennedy et al. 2007, Barles 2009, Holmes et Pincentl 2012 ). Opening the black-box remains thus challenging. Another challenge is to link imported goods and sustainability. For their production, imported goods mobilize more material than their own weight and generate waste, both of which are not manipulated by the territory under study. But in a global world, with global challenges, these indirect (embedded) impacts are also under the consumer’s responsibility and must be examined. This second challenge has been tackle by Goldstein et al. (2013) by integrating the life-cycle assessment of imported products in the analysis of urban metabolism. They underlined that indirect impacts are at least as important as the direct ones.

Life-cycle assessment guideline might also be used for opening the black-box. According to the three main stages of a product’s life cycle (production, use and waste elimination), we can divide the black-box in three sub-boxes. We can thereupon create a network of five nodes (Environment, External, Production, Use, Waste), that are interrelated by flows. From a circular economy perspective, we access directly to key indicators. For example, the flow from Production to Use stages indicates the level of auto-consumption of a given territory. Similarly, the flow from Waste to Production is correlated to its recycling performance, and the one from Waste to Use shows waste rehabilitation or repair. Investigating territorial metabolism through the life-cycle assessment guidelines is just beginning in PhD context. The Alsace Region of France has been selected for this kind of UM research based on the regional material flow analysis that has been recently performed (2015).

Territorial metabolism


« Territorial / Urban Metabolism » is a term inspired from biology (Wolman 1965), and applied to a territory: All of the flows mobilised by the people living on a territory.

Territorial metabolism.png

Accounting method

At a national scale :

At a regional scale :

Result Template

Territorial metabolism result template.png

Example of Alsace

Result of Alsace's metabolism study (Région Alsace & Ademe 2015) :

Ademe RegionAlsace BilanFluxEntreesSorties.png

One question remains: How to open the blackbox (the material throughput) ?

Territorial Metabolism through the Life-Cycle of Products : an explorative approach

The Life-Cycle Analysis principles are already used to evaluate indirect flows (Goldstein et al. 2013, CGDD 2014)

Territorialmetabolism lifecycle example.png

They might also help to better describe territorial metabolism with 3 kinds of imported / exported ressources:

  • For direct consumption
  • For production of goods
  • For waste management

We divide the territory in three life-cycle stages for products (see on right):

  • Raw & preprocessed (P : production),
  • Final product (U : use),
  • Waste (W)

Circular economy indicators:

  • (1) auto-consumption
  • (2) recycling
  • (3) rehabilitation

Data processing

Territorialmetabolism lifecycle dataprocessing.png

Results for Alsace

Territorialmetabolism lifecycle alsace.png

We might formulate four comments :

  • Output to output flows (in transit) burden the mass balance in the methodology proposed by CGDD (2014) (here one third of all inputs is gaz or oil in transit through pipeline).
  • The flow for the waste stage is low compared to other stages. An explication might be that the most weighted flows are concerning construction material and fuel. The first one is mainly included in stock (that we do not see on the scheme), the second one is burned, and the CO2 emission are going from use stage directly to environment.
  • The recycling is only a little part of all flows (around 10%).
  • There are less represented flows than expected due to a lack of data.

Discussion and limits

Territorial metabolism is a global mass analysis

Territorial metabolism indicators are not easy to understand, it is "Not Just a Matter of Weight" (Van der Voet et al. 2004).

Furthermore, some regional structures have impacts on import quality and quantity: logistics platforms (ex: pipeline, harbour), industrial sites (raw material consumption) or residential and offices (final product consumption), ...

Exploring circularity of regional economy

The life-cycle method proposed here allows for a better understanding of the metabolism, by highlighting and relativising some dynamics especially resources in transit, waste management efficiency or self-production.

Statistics constraints

However, data analysis is highly constrained by the NST 2007 nomenclature used for Freight statistics (European Commission Regulation No 1304/2007). Indeed, the NST 2007 does not describe well life-cycle stage of products and lead to many assumptions in the data processing.

Freight statistics are not well adapted for material analysis, and thus for circular economy... However, there is no other available data at region’s scale concerning importation and exportation. Regional authorities should ensure sufficient statistics to understand circular economy dynamics.

Change in the approach : closer to the economy

Different stages than Production / Use / Waste could be used

  • Production
  • Transport & logistics
  • Institution & public services
  • Final consumption
  • Waste management

To cite this article

Ribon, B., 2017, Territorial Metabolism through the Life Cycle of Products, LCM 2017 Conference Cycle (Luxembourg). [En ligne] URL : https://metabolisme-territorial.fr/wiki/index.php/LCM2017. Consulté le 19 avril 2018.

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• Alterre Bourgogne, 2013, La Bourgogne comptabilise ses flux de matière, Repères, 64. [En ligne] URL : http://www.alterre-bourgogne.org/arkotheque/client/alterre_bourgogne/_depot_arko/basesdoc/4/61584/reperes-64.pdf. Consulté le 19 avril 2018.
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• Hoornweg, D., Campillo, G., Saldivar-Sali, A., Sugar, L., Linders, D., 2012, Mainstreaming Urban Metabolism: Advances and Challenges in City Participation, Sixth Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium 2012. [En ligne] URL : http://www.dennislinders.com/portfolio/Hoornweg_et_al_URKS6_Urban_Metabolism.pdf. Consulté le 19 avril 2018.
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KeyRefwolman1965 +, hoornweg2012 +, kennedy2007 +, barles2009 +, holmes2012 +, goldstein2013 +, eurostat2001 +, eurostat2013a +, barles2007 +, alterrebourgogne2013 +, cgdd2014 +, regionalsace2015 + et vandervoet2004 +
PageLabelTerritorial Metabolism through the Life Cycle of Products +
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