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A Life in Materials

What if you were buried with all of your material possessions, but on a life cycle basis? This 29 feet wide by 47 feet tall pyramid memorial in Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, MA shows the total mass of material that is extracted to make products used by an individual in the United States over the course of his or her life.

The latest estimate - made in 2007 by the Minerals Information Institute [1] – was a total of 3.7 million pounds (1.7 million kg) of minerals and energy fuels such as coal. This includes both material used by the individual personally, such as metals in a car, as well as material used by society at large, such as concrete for roads and bridges.

Importantly, the estimate also includes the rock material extracted during mining that is not actually used for anything. For copper with an average ore grade of 0.5%, this means that nearly 200 tons of material is extracted for every ton of copper produced!

Of the total amount of material use over a human lifetime, the largest portions are for stone, sand, and gravel (46%) used for buildings, roads, and other public works, and coal (16%) for electricity generation.

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[1] MEC, 2019. “Mineral Baby.” Englewood, CO: Minerals Education Coalition.   https://mineralseducationcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-Mineral-baby-letterhead-size.pdf

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