Lifecycle Thinking Across the Value Chain

By Susan Robinson, Waste Management’s Senior Public Affairs Director and Co-Chair of SWEEP’s Steering Committee

Circular Economy

In early February, a group of over 100 stakeholders from across the value chain gathered in Arizona to learn more about Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) and to brainstorm next steps for implementing this framework policy in the U.S. Part of Waste Management’s 2017 Sustainability Forum (view WM Forum presentations at, this moderated workshop delved into questions about Lifecycle Thinking, metrics, education, infrastructure and the economics of SMM. Stakeholders at the workshop included cities, product and packaging manufacturers, retailers, brands, service providers and consultants.   The workshop was moderated by Charlie Scott of Cascadia Consulting Group and Ruth Abbe from Abbe & Associates, who charged participants with creating a list of actionable next steps for implementing SMM.

What is Sustainable Materials Management (SMM)?

Cheryl Coleman, Section Chief from US EPA kicked off the workshop with an overview of the principles of Sustainable Materials Management. Coleman emphasized SMM as an approach for using and reusing materials effectively and efficiently while minimizing the amount of materials we use and their environmental impacts. SMM encourages life cycle based decision making for collaborative and integrative approaches to problem solving. Life cycle information can help set priorities and target program resources where they may be most effective (e.g., materials and hotspots with real reduction opportunities). It encourages the least costly, most beneficial system improvement, but does not prescribe any one approach.   Coleman emphasized that SMM is an approach for using and reusing materials effectively and efficiently while minimizing the amount of materials we use environmental impacts.

Breakout Groups

Workshop participants then broke into smaller groups to brainstorm “next steps” for implementing SMM. Not surprisingly, there were some robust small group discussions about what SMM is (and is not) which led to some great conversations. One topic that came up at several tables was the question about the relationship between SMM and the Circular Economy. At my table, we talked about SMM and CE as complementary and the idea SMM offers a near-term road map to identify priorities for implementing programs along the path to a longer-term Circular Economy goal (where everything is “stays in motion” in the environment in biological or technical circles).

A concern that was voiced about SMM was whether it picks “winners and losers” through its use of lifecycle analysis. This topic came up at several points throughout the day, with a conclusion that SMM creates processes for improvement, but is not prescriptive. SMM does not focus on a specific “right or wrong”.

Finally, the question of “which metric?” was pervasive.   While GHG emissions seems to be a commonly accepted proxy for environmental impact, the group recognized that we may need to translate GHG goals back into tons by program for measuring success. We recognized need to consider other environmental impacts such as energy, water, toxicity. These will all likely be considered as part of SMM goal setting.

Brainstorming recommendations

After a lively discussion, the small groups each listed their ideas for moving forward. Then, the list of contenders was voted on by all attendees. Top contenders for implementation coming out of the workshop included:

  1. Measurement: We need to develop a set of tools, resources and incentives to measure SMM and to set SMM based goals.  A consistent tool box will help in making data-based decisions.
  2. Communications: We can (and should) simplify SMM by creating modules for different parts of the value chain.   Case studies and best practices will help communicate SMM more effectively to a broader audience.
  3. Economics: SMM programs must be economically viable and we’ll need to ensure that infrastructure and technology support program implementation.
  4. Policy: Our goal is to change how policy makers look at waste via the concepts of lifecycle thinking (not necessarily lifecycle analysis).  Implementation should be practical and include all key audiences/stakeholders along the value chain.

We hope to see more workshops focusing on SMM to help policy makers understand the role of SMM in future goal setting and to see the path forward as an evolution of how we manage materials in our states and local communities.

Similar to the theme of this workshop, SWEEP recognizes the value of Sustainable Materials Management as an evolution of the weight-based goals previously set by both government and corporate entities. As we all learn more about this new way to thinking, using lifecycle thinking allows a focus on broader environmental goals. SWEEP supports a comprehensive evaluation of local programs to ensure optimal environmental benefits in our communities as society and our waste stream changes, and as we broaden our knowledge of the world in which we live.

Interested in becoming a certified sustainable materials management organization? Let SWEEP guide you through the process. Comment below or email to get started. Reach out at or visit  to learn more.


  1. I’m curious if the topic of the Internet of Things came up and how the IoT might act as an enabler for both SMM and the Circular Economy? Specifically, if we can effectively track materials, knowing where they are, what shape they are in, and what needs to happen to keep them in the cycle, then we are a lot closer to both goals. As they say, if you can measure it you can manage it. I also am interested in the idea of a building (or a product) as a resource bank; a place where resources are stored, so to speak, until they reach the effective life expectancy, at which point the re-enter the appropriate cycle.

  2. As a senior expert from Europe working in sold waste management I did not understand what the participants of the mentioned works wat to udertake in the daily waste generation practice. inventing new terms which are not defined what it really means do not help to achieve sustainability. The whole crowd did ot mention even the need of source separation as first step in a sustaiable management. What will you do if you come home and see your waste bin full of mixed garbage ?

    • I would argue that source separation as a strategy has largely plateaued in terms of its effectiveness. It relies on millions of individual decisions and millions of “sells” to individuals to get them to make different/better decisions.

      Europe has been more successful in this endeavor than the US, but if we are to make a difference globally, we need to seriously examine what decisions individuals are better at making vs. alternative means of achieving a desired end. Specifically, I would argue that focusing education on the purchase decision vs. the disposal decision is a more effective place to intervene with consumers. Teach them to ask, “Do I need this?” “Do I need this much?” “Do I want all of this packaging?” will be more effective at channeling their limited bandwidth for questioning the materiality in their life than educating them in which bin to place their discarded materials, a decision that will be increasingly complicated as we move to lightweight composite materials.

      We are on the cusp of a revolution in material separation that will render source separation obsolete. New back-end material processing techniques for paper and plastic have been designed to handle “contaminated” materials, which can now allow nearly 100% of the molecules in the waste stream to be repurposed rather than disposed of.

      Clearly, a comprehensive approach requires working with manufacturers as well to decrease the materiality of their products and to incentivize them to take more of a lifecycle responsibility. In SWEEP we will promote and reward effective public education and engagement programs for source separation, as well as source reduction. Examples from Europe that we can standardize and benchmark against would be very helpful for our program. We hope that you will continue to share your expertise.


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