Advanced Topics

Material Flow Analysis (MFA)

Material Flow Analysis (MFA) stands out as a powerful methodology for comprehensively mapping and analyzing the flow of materials within organizational systems. As companies strive to reduce their ecological footprint and enhance operational efficiency, MFA emerges as a critical lens through which to scrutinize material inputs, processes, and outputs. Learn more about the impact this can have on organizations, with Minimum. 

What is a material flow analysis?

Material Flow Analysis (MFA) is a method used to study the movement and transformation of materials within a system. By quantifying the flow of resources, such as raw materials, energy and waste, MFA can provide insights into resource efficiency and sustainability, as well as areas which require improvement within industrial processes.

Overall MFA aids in identifying the inputs, outputs, and stocks of materials, which applied correctly can contribute to informed decision-making, helping companies optimize resource use and reduce their environmental impact.

Material flow analysis example

An effective example of Material Flow Analysis involves examining the flow of plastics within a city. Researchers utilizing MFA can analyze the inputs of raw materials used for plastic production, track the distribution and consumption of plastic products, and then study the disposal pathways; such as recycling, landfilling, or incineration.

This analysis involves quantifying the amount of plastic produced, consumed, recycled and discarded at various stages within the city. The methodology identifies inefficiencies, such as: 

  • High waste generation 
  • Low recycling rates

It then provides insights into space for improvements, such as promoting recycling initiatives, reducing plastic usage, or enhancing waste management systems to improve resource efficiency and minimize environmental impact.

What is it used for?

MFA provides valuable insights for designing more sustainable and circular business models, ultimately contributing to the overall environmental and economic performance. In particular, MFA serves several major purposes when applied across various fields and industries:

Resource efficiency

MFA helps identify inefficiencies and opportunities for optimizing resource use, further enhancing their efficiency.

Environmental impact assessment

MFA can help identify hotspots of resource depletion, pollution, or waste generation by evaluating the use of individual materials.

Policy development

MFA provides valuable data for policymakers to design and implement strategies focused on resource management, waste reduction, and sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Circular economy

The analysis of material flows can support the transition towards a circular economy by identifying opportunities for reusing, recycling, and recovering materials.

What are the principles of material flow analysis?

Material Flow Analysis (MFA) operates on several key principles to comprehensively understand and analyze the flow of materials within a system. Some fundamental principles include:

Boundary setting

Clearly defining the boundaries of the system under study by identifying what materials enter the system (inputs), how they are utilized and transformed within the system, and what exits the system (outputs).

Balancing input vs output

MFA is based on the principle of mass balance, which adheres to the conservation of mass; fundamentally the total amount of materials entering a system must equal the total amount leaving the system.

Stock management

Stocks represent accumulations of materials that are retained for a certain period, while flows indicate the movement of materials into, within, and out of the system over time.Material Flow Analysis relies on quantitative data to track material flows accurately. This involves collecting data on material inputs, outputs, stocks, transformations, and losses at various stages of the system.


It's essential to document assumptions, methodologies, and data sources transparently in MFA studies. This allows for reproducibility and credibility of the analysis. MFA often involves an iterative process, refining assumptions, data collection methods, and analysis techniques to improve the accuracy and reliability of the results - meaning a much more trustworthy result.

By adhering to these principles, Material Flow Analysis provides a structured framework for understanding and quantifying the movement and transformation of materials within a system, aiding in decision-making for resource management and sustainability.


MFA employs diverse methods to study material movements within defined systems. This process involves collecting data from sources such as trade records and consumption data, which is then used to create visual representations like material flow diagrams and matrixes.

 By further integrating with specific tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map material flows spatially, MFA can also offer a clear view of movement in regions or supply chains; assisting stakeholders in evaluating resource usage patterns, spotting inefficiencies, and devising sustainable resource management strategies.

Augmented by tools like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Material Flow Cost Accounting (MFCA), and GIS, MFA provides insights into both environmental impacts and economic aspects related to material flows. These are largely split into two distinct outputs: 

External material flow

External material flows refers to analysis of the movement of materials into or out of a system or boundary. These external flows encompass the materials that enter or exit the defined system but are not accounted for within its boundaries.

For instance, in a city's Material Flow Analysis, the external material flows might include raw materials imported for manufacturing, products purchased from outside the city, waste exported for disposal or materials used in the production of goods that are subsequently exported elsewhere. These external flows are essential to consider as they impact the overall material balance and environmental footprint of the system being studied.

Understanding external material flows is crucial for obtaining a comprehensive view of a system's resource utilization and waste generation as It allows analysts to account for the entire lifecycle of materials. By  including inputs and outputs that originate or end outside the defined boundaries it can provide a more accurate assessment of the system's sustainability and aid in the identification of opportunities for improvement.

In-house material flow

In-house material flows refer to the movement and circulation of materials within the tighter boundaries of a specific system (such as a business or organization) being studied through the lens of Material Flow Analysis. These flows encompass all the materials that enter, circulate within, and exit the defined system. For example, in a manufacturing facility, in-house material flows include: 

  • Raw materials received for production
  • Materials used in manufacturing processes
  • Intermediate products within the facility
  • Finished products
  • Any waste or byproducts generated during production

Analyzing in-house material flows is crucial for understanding resource usage patterns, identifying inefficiencies and further optimizing processes within the system. By quantifying and evaluating these internal material movements, MFA can pinpoint areas where materials are wasted, identify opportunities for recycling or reuse, and improve overall resource efficiency. 

This analysis enables businesses, industries, or systems to make informed decisions to reduce waste generation, improve production processes, and achieve sustainability goals.

<h2>How Minimum can help</h2>

Minimum can help organizations to understand their existing carbon output, and create plans to mitigate climate related risks in the future.  Our Emissions Data Platform seamlessly collects and processes emissions data from every corner of your organization and supply chain - no matter the format. Making it the ideal platform for emissions audits and all-round business intelligence. 

Learn more about how Minimum's Emission Data Platform can help to power you all the way to Net Zero today.