Sustainable materials management

Last updated

Sustainable Materials Management is a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire lifecycles. It represents a change in how a society thinks about the use of natural resources and environmental protection. By looking at a product's entire lifecycle new opportunities can be found to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources, and reduce costs. [1] U.S. and global consumption of materials increased rapidly during the last century. According to the Annex to the G7 Leaders’ June 8, 2015 Declaration, global raw material use rose during the 20th century at about twice the rate of population growth. For every 1 percent increase in gross domestic product, raw material use has risen by 0.4 percent. [2] This increasing consumption has come at a cost to the environment, including habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, overly stressed fisheries and desertification. Materials management is also associated with an estimated 42 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to find more productive and sustainable ways to extract, use and manage materials, and change the relationship between material consumption and growth, has grave implications for our economy and society.



U.S. EPA's SMM lifecycle of materials and products from material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use and end-of-life. Lifecycle EPA.jpg
U.S. EPA's SMM lifecycle of materials and products from material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use and end-of-life.

Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) represents a framework to sustainably manage materials and products throughout the entire lifecycle, from resource extraction, design and manufacturing, resource productivity, consumption and end-of-life management.

Traditional patterns of material consumption in the United States follow a Cradle-to-Grave pattern of raw material extraction, product manufacturing, distribution to consumers, use by consumers, and disposal; coined by The Story of Stuff author Annie Leonard as the "take-make-waste" linear economy and commonly referred to as the throw-away society, [4] these familiar waste management practices are being revised to bring about sustainable management of resources. SMM represents a shift in how materials are used and valued with a focus on the environmental impact of material use and environmental protection throughout the entire lifecycle of a product. SMM has been adopted as a regulatory approach to manage materials by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many other governments around the world.

Sustainable Materials Management is a broad approach that overlaps and supplements many programs and concepts being adopted by governments and business around the world including zero waste, green chemistry, eco-labeling, sustainable supply-chain management, lean manufacturing, green procurement, the US EPA’s Design for the Environment Program, the G8’s 3R’s ( reduce, reuse, recycle ) program, UNEP's Sustainable Production and Consumption and Sustainable Resource Management programs, and OECD's Sustainable Materials Management framework. [5]

Differences between Waste Management and SMM [6]

Product Lifecycle Models

There are several similar and overlapping efforts to define and conceptualize a closed loop lifecycle of product and materials management, with many of these efforts being spearheaded by government agencies, entrepreneurs, scientists and non-governmental organizations. While similar to SMM, these product lifecycle models focus largely on the end-of-life management of materials while SMM focuses on the impacts materials, products and services have on the environment such as eutrophication, acidification, ozone layer depletion, global warming and aquatic toxicity as well as energy and water use. [5]

Product Stewardship

The Product Stewardship Institute defines Product stewardship as:

"the act of minimizing the health, safety, environmental, and social impacts of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages, while also maximizing economic benefits. The manufacturer, or producer, of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law". [7]

British Columbia (BC) has an extensive product stewardship network administered by BC Recycles and composed of BC producers and brand owners who are required by law to collect and divert end-of-life products and packaging. [8]

Circular Economy

The U.Ks Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) defines the Circular Economy as being an alternative to the traditional take, make, waste economy to one that keeps resources in use as long as possible, extracts the maximum value from the materials while they are in use, then recovers the materials to generate new products at the end of the service life. [9]

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by working with businesses, academia and governments throughout the world to develop an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and seeks to keep products, components and materials at their highest use and value at all times, distinguishing between biological and technical cycles. [10]


The Dictionary of Sustainable Management defines Cradle-to-Cradle as

"A phrase invented by Walter R. Stahel in the 1970s and popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book of the same name. This framework seeks to create production techniques that are not just efficient but are essentially waste free. In cradle-to-cradle production, all material inputs and outputs are seen either as technical or biological nutrients. Technical nutrients can be recycled or reused with no loss of quality and biological nutrients composted or consumed. By contrast cradle-to-grave refers to a company taking responsibility for the disposal of goods it has produced, but not necessarily putting products’ constituent components back into service." [11]

Closed Loop Recycling

In closed loop recycling, a material is captured at the end of life and introduced back into the manufacturing process to make a new product [12]

Implementing SMM Globally

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) formed in 1960 and currently comprising 35 member countries including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and 23 countries in the European Union, [13] works to foster economic prosperity and end poverty by promoting economic growth and financial stability for governments around the world while also taking into account the implications that economic and social growth have on the environment. [14]

Since the 1980s, the OECD has worked to promote policies that prevent, reduce and manage waste in ways that mitigate environmental impacts. It has become clear over time that increasing economic activity and materials consumptions calls for a systematic materials based approach to managing waste, one that seeks to incorporate materials back into the manufacturing process at the end of their life, in what is commonly referred to as a “cradle to cradle” approach to materials management as opposed to the traditional “cradle to grave” waste management approach. Around 2001 the OECD began to address many countries’ interest in viewing waste as a resource that can be used as inputs for new products and many countries and governments have begun adopting sustainable materials management policies. [15]

In 2012, the OECD put out a Green Growth Policy Brief on Sustainable Materials Management. In it they define SMM as

“…an approach to promote sustainable materials use, integrating actions targeted at reducing negative environmental impacts and preserving natural capital throughout the life-cycle of materials, taking into account economic efficiency and social equity”. [16]

The OECD working definition includes the following notes on the definition of SMM: [16]

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Sustainable Production and Consumption (UNEP)

Sustainable Resource Management (UNEP)

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)

The US EPA has adopted Sustainable Materials Management as a regulatory framework for managing materials. In June 2009 the EPA put out a report that functioned as a road map to SMM in the U.S. titled Sustainable Materials Management - The Road Ahead 2009 - 2020. In this report, EPA defines SMM as

“... an approach to serving human needs by using/reusing resources productively and sustainably throughout their life cycles, generally minimizing the amount of materials involved and all associated environmental impacts”. [17]

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sets the legislative basis for SSM in the United States, establishing a preference for resource conservation over disposal. In 2010, the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery shifted focus from just resource recovery efforts to adopt a broader sustainable materials management approach. The new approach includes the two original waste management mandates of RCRA: 1) to protect human health and the environment from waste and 2) to conserve resources, and adds in three additional goals: 1) to “Reduce waste and increase the efficient and sustainable use of resources”, 2) “Prevent exposures to humans and ecosystems from the use of hazardous chemicals” 3) “Manage wastes and clean up chemical releases in a safe, environmentally sound manner”. [18]

In 2015 EPA published the report EPA Sustainable Materials Management Program Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2022. This five-year plan will focus on three strategic initiatives:

  1. The built environment
  2. Organics recycling, and
  3. Reduction in packaging

Other areas the EPA will focus on include sustainable electronics management, life-cycle assessment, measurement, and international SMM collaboration. [18]

Related Research Articles

Environmental full-cost accounting (EFCA) is a method of cost accounting that traces direct costs and allocates indirect costs by collecting and presenting information about the possible environmental, social and economical costs and benefits or advantages – in short, about the "triple bottom line" – for each proposed alternative. It is also known as true-cost accounting (TCA), but, as definitions for "true" and "full" are inherently subjective, experts consider both terms problematical.

Product stewardship is an approach to managing the environmental impacts of different products and materials and at different stages in their production, use and disposal. It acknowledges that those involved in producing, selling, using and disposing of products have a shared responsibility to ensure that those products or materials are managed in a way that reduces their impact, throughout their lifecycle, on the environment and on human health and safety. This approach focusses on the product itself, and everyone involved in the lifespan of the product is called upon to take up responsibility to reduce its environmental, health, and safety impacts.

Over the years, as countries and regions around the world began to develop, it slowly became evident that industrialization and economic growth come hand in hand with environmental degradation. Eco-efficiency has been proposed as one of the main tools to promote a transformation from unsustainable development to one of sustainable development. It is based on the concept of creating more goods and services while using fewer resources and creating less waste and pollution. "It is measured as the ratio between the (added) value of what has been produced and the (added) environment impacts of the product or service ." The term was coined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in its 1992 publication "Changing Course," and at the 1992 Earth Summit, eco-efficiency was endorsed as a new business concept and means for companies to implement Agenda 21 in the private sector. Ergo the term has become synonymous with a management philosophy geared towards sustainability, combining ecological and economic efficiency.

Extended producer responsibility strategy designed to promote the integration of environmental costs associated with goods

In the field of waste management, extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a strategy to add all of the environmental costs associated with a product throughout the product life cycle to the market price of that product. Extended producer responsibility legislation is a driving force behind the adoption of remanufacturing initiatives because it "focuses on the end-of-use treatment of consumer products and has the primary aim to increase the amount and degree of product recovery and to minimize the environmental impact of waste materials".

Zero waste philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused

Zero Waste is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean. Currently, only 9% of plastic is actually recycled. In a zero waste system, material will be reused until the optimum level of consumption. The definition adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is:

Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.

Green building architecture designed to minimize environmental and resource impact

Green building refers to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. This requires close cooperation of the contractor, the architects, the engineers, and the client at all project stages. The Green Building practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. In doing so, the three dimensions of sustainability, i.e., planet, people and profit across the entire supply chain need to be considered.

Waste minimisation process that involves reducing the amount of waste produced in society

Waste minimisation is a set of processes and practices intended to reduce the amount of waste produced. By reducing or eliminating the generation of harmful and persistent wastes, waste minimisation supports efforts to promote a more sustainable society. Waste minimisation involves redesigning products and processes and/or changing societal patterns of consumption and production.

Precycling is the practice of reducing waste by attempting to avoid bringing items which will generate waste into home or business. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also cites that precycling is the preferred method of integrated solid waste management because it cuts waste at its source and therefore trash is eliminated before it is created. According to the EPA, precycling is also characterized as a decision-making process on the behalf of the consumer because it involves making informed judgments regarding a product's waste implications. The implications that are taken into consideration by the consumer include: whether a product is reusable, durable, or repairable; made from renewable or non-renewable resources; over-packaged; and whether or not the container is reusable.

Design for the Environment (DfE) is a design approach to reduce the overall human health and environmental impact of a product, process or service, where impacts are considered across its life cycle. Different software tools have been developed to assist designers in finding optimized products or processes/services. DfE is also the original name of a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program, created in 1992, that works to prevent pollution, and the risk pollution presents to humans and the environment. The program provides information regarding safer chemical formulations for cleaning and other products. EPA renamed its program "Safer Choice" in 2015.

Environmental enterprise

An environmental enterprise is an environmentally friendly/compatible business. Specifically, an environmental enterprise is a business that produces value in the same manner which an ecosystem does, neither producing waste nor consuming unsustainable resources. In addition, an environmental enterprise rather finds alternative ways to produce one's products instead of taking advantage of animals for the sake of human profits. To be closer to the goal of being an environmentally friendly company, some environmental enterprises invest their money to develop or improve their technologies which are also environmentally friendly. In addition, environmental enterprises usually try to reduce global warming, so some companies use materials that are environmentally friendly to build their stores. They also set in place regulations that are environmentally friendly. All these efforts of the environmental enterprises can bring positive effects both for nature and people. The concept is rooted in the well-enumerated theories of natural capital, the eco-economy and cradle to cradle design. Examples of environmental enterprise would be Seventh Generation, Inc., and Whole Foods.

Ecological design or ecodesign is an approach to designing products with special consideration for the environmental impacts of the product during its whole lifecycle. It was defined by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan as "any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes." Ecological design is an integrative ecologically responsible design discipline. Ecological design can also be posited as the process within design and development of integration environmental consideration into product design and development with the aim of reducing environmental impacts of products through their life cycle.

EPA Sustainability

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in July 1970 when the White House and the United States Congress came together due to the public's demand for cleaner natural resources. The purpose of the EPA is to repair the damage done to the environment and to set up new criteria to allow Americans to make a clean environment a reality. The ultimate goal of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment.

Environmentally sustainable design is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of ecological sustainability.

Circular economy regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage, are minimised

A circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. The circular economy aims to keep products, equipment and infrastructure in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. All "waste" should become "food" for another process: either a by-product or recovered resource for another industrial process or as regenerative resources for nature. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a "take, make, dispose" model of production.

International Resource Panel organization

The International Resource Panel is a scientific panel of experts that aims to help nations use natural resources sustainably without compromising economic growth and human needs. It provides independent scientific assessments and expert advice on a variety of areas, including:

Sustainable products are those products that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and environment over their whole life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal.

Resource recovery is using wastes as an input material to create valuable products as new outputs. The aim is to reduce the amount of waste generated, thereby reducing the need for landfill space, and optimising the values created from waste. Resource recovery delays the need to use raw materials in the manufacturing process. Materials found in municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste, commercial waste and industrial wastes can be used to recover resources for the manufacturing of new materials and products. Plastic, paper, aluminium, glass and metal are examples of where value can be found in waste.

Life cycle thinking is an approach to becoming mindful of how everyday life affects the environment. This approach evaluates how both consuming products and engaging in activities impacts the environment but it not only evaluates them at one single step, but takes a holistic picture of an entire product or activity system.

Resource efficiency is the maximising of the supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively, with minimum wasted (natural) resource expenses. It means using the Earth's limited resources in a sustainable manner while minimising environmental impact.

A Circular Economy is an alternative way countries manage their resources, where instead of using products in the traditional linear make, use, dispose method, resources are used for their maximum utility throughout its life cycle and regenerated in a cyclical pattern minimizing waste. They strive to create economic development through environmental and resource protection. The ideas of a circular economy were officially adopted by China in 2002, when the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China legislated it as a national endeavour, though various sustainability initiatives were implemented in the previous decades starting in 1973. China adopted the circular economy due to the environmental damage and resource depletion that was occurring from going through its industrialization process. China is currently a world leader in the production of resources, where it produces 46% of the worlds aluminum, 50% of steel and 60% of cement, while it has consumed more raw materials than all the countries a part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) combined. In 2014, China created 3.2 billion tonnes of industrial solid waste, where 2 billion tonnes were recovered using recycling, incineration, reusing and composting. By 2025, China is anticipated to produce up to one quarter of the worlds municipal solid waste.


  3. EPA,OSWER, US. "Sustainable Materials Management". Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  4. "Problem: Our "Take, Make, Waste" Economy".
  5. 1 2 "Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead 2009 - 2020" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  6. "Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead 2009 - 2020" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-04.
  7. "Product Stewardship Institute Definitions". Retrieved 2016-12-04.
  8. "We're all in this together. | BC Recycles". Retrieved 2016-12-10.
  9. "WRAP and the Circular Economy". Retrieved 2016-12-04.
  10. "Ellen Macarthur Foundation - Circular Economy". Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  11. "Dictionary of Sustainable Management". Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  12. "Closed Loop Recycling". Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  13. "OECD Members and Partners". Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  14. "OECD - What We Do and How". Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  15. "OECD Sustainable Materials Management". Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  16. 1 2 "Green Growth Policy Brief - Sustainable Materials Management" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  17. "Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead 2009 - 2020" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-04.
  18. 1 2 "U.S. EPA Sustainable Materials Management Program Strategic Plan - Fiscal Year 2017 - 2022" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-04.