Defining Sustainable Materials Management for Local Communities

SMM DiagramTwenty to thirty years ago when we were first thinking about city-wide recycling programs, we saw recycling as an important way to reduce our environmental impact by reducing the use of virgin resources.   We measured our success by the amount of material that we diverted from landfills, with weight as our form of measurement.  Weight-based recycling goals became the accepted indicator we were making a positive impact on the environment and cities, states and corporates developed aggressive goals:  50%, 75% and even 100% recycling/diversion/Zero Waste goals.

Fast forward to 2016.  We have a lot more information about environmental benefits from recycling.  We also have the ability to analyze and measure environmental attributes among various materials — far beyond simple weight-based recycling goals.  We can quantify the benefits from new types of packaging that protect products better and reduce waste, is a good thing and worth pursuing.  We can quantify the impact of shifting social behavior (e.g., the effects of an on-the-go life style focus on convenience), and the benefits of light-weighting packaging (which reduces demand for raw materials).  The world around us has changed, and for materials management, many of those changes are for the good.

There are unintended consequences resulting from these changes as well.  For example, a reduction in per person waste generation saves resources, but it also impedes progress toward achieving high weight-based recycling goals.  This can lead to programs focused on adding weight to advance diversion goals, without environmental benefit commensurate with cost.

Sustainable Materials Management

In 2009, the US EPA introduced a framework policy called Sustainable Materials Management (SMM).  SMM focuses on the value of using and reusing of materials in the most productive and sustainable ways across their entire lifecycle. The idea behind SMM is to minimize materials use, thereby minimizing associated environmental impacts.

Although SMM didn’t get much attention when it was first introduced, as the precision of our environmental tracking has improved, SMM is a concept whose time has come.  It is impossible to attend a recycling or packaging conference in the U.S. in 2016 without hearing at least one panel discussion about SMM:  what it is, what the benefits are, and how it can be implemented.

EPA’s SMM policy framework helps us evolve our programs, using information that we now have readily available. Using lifecycle analysis, we can identify hotspots – materials and processes with the greatest environmental challenges. We can use systems-thinking, material flow analysis and integrated policy to create out-come based goals. EPA’s 2009 policy has become an important model for sustainable development within the Agency.

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SMM:  State Policy with Local Implications

SMM can replace the antiquated weight-based recycling and diversion model with goals that prioritize environmental impacts using the concepts of lifecycle thinking.  By looking at our world from a lifecycle perspective, we can have frank discussions about the true costs and benefits of recycling.  The information arms us to make smart choices.

State and local examples of SMM: Implementing Outcome Based Goals

The State of Oregon is in the process of implementing a policy of SMM, using lifecycle thinking to identify key areas of opportunity to reduce environmental impacts, then setting goals for those areas.  They refer to their efforts as “Outcome Based Goal Setting.”

These graphs from Oregon DEQ offer examples of how we can use lifecycle thinking to develop smart goals, then implement them.  The first graph is the recovery of 1 ton of material in the graph.  As folks in Oregon point out, a graph depicting achievement of weight-based recycling goals is not terribly helpful!  We are just counting tons.  Tons don’t tell the story of actual environment.

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The second graph shows the GHG emissions savings of recycling 1 ton of these same materials – from an entire lifecycle perspective, not just end of life materials management.

Using lifecycle analyses, Oregon has begun developing materials-specific waste reduction goals. For example, they have developed a goal of reducing 25% of the carpet in the waste streams, 25% of the plastic and 25% of the food.  The goals were developed based on the GHG emission reduction potential and other environmental attributes like energy savings.  As the state establishes specific material goals and works to achieve these goals, they will know from their analysis the precise footprint of the positive environmental benefit.

Lifecycle Example

A final example often used to highlight lifecycle thinking includes an old fashioned recyclable steel can, a recyclable rigid plastic container, and a non-recyclable flexible plastic pouch. The analysis assumes the national average recycling rate for the metal and plastics containers, and disposal of the flexible pouch.

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According to the results of the study, there is a 400% benefit in energy consumption when moving from steel cans to flexible laminates, and a 1000% benefit in GHG emissions across the life-cycle from production to end-of-life management with flexible packaging.  The primary benefits are associated with the reduction of raw materials used.  Additional benefits accrue from efficiencies in transportation, storage and shelf space.  The environmental benefits associated with using non-recyclable flexible packaging outweigh the benefits of the recyclable packages they replace.

How cities can use local sustainable materials management to create and achieve successful Materials Management Programs.

Change is hard.  But in 2016, we have the knowledge and data to drive real environmental change using EPA data about the lifecycle impacts of the products and materials that we all manage.  Changing from weight-based recycling goals to strategic material-specific goals allows us to prioritize our efforts to get the best environmental benefit for our local communities.

EPA’s science-based approach to goal setting is simply the right thing to do.  That is why this change is probably inevitable.

We look forward to working with local communities across the country to develop and implement programs that will reduce the environmental impacts associated with the materials that we use in our daily lives.

Want to make a real impact in your community’s sustainable materials management efforts? Get SWEEP certified and become a leader in the field. Comment below, email, or head to for more info.


  1. This is an incredible example of the collaboration that is required to achieve desired goals. Thanks to the SPE for continuing to push the plastic envelope for performances above and beyond the imaginable. The many assorted combinations of polymers to create specific qualities required of product producers will make it difficult to develop and apply equipment to bring this material along with its contaminations into a closed loop market. Separation to pure grades will be impossible so the next best thing is to upcycle this material into structural components reducing the need for finite materials such as wood,metals and cement. This equipment exists and is operating today. For every ton of material diverted and used as plastic lumber one large tree will be saved.

  2. While materials-specific goals are harder to analyze because of data needed, it’s a big step in the right direction. I used to teach Product Life Cycle Engineering at San Jose State and had such examples for class projects. It was a lot of fun and were always eye-opening! We are now trying to bring some of these techniques into a software based solution.


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