SWEEP: A Common Framework for Sustainable Materials Management

Universally Accepted Benchmarks Could Help Local Governments Improve Their Waste Management Programs

By Izzy Hamlen, Rising Senior at Deerfield Academy, SWEEP Intern & Rob Watson, Principal, Upland Road LLC. Founder & President SWEEP Standard.

Many dedicated professionals have been making significant efforts to transform the solid waste industry from the 20th-century linear take, make, waste model to a 21st-century circular, sustainable materials management approach. But in spite of these efforts, in the United States material diversion rates, as represented by recycling and composting activities, have remained largely flat for the better part of a decade until the recent collapse of the market.

Unprecedented changes in global recycling and materials markets, coupled with a hollowed-out material recovery industry in the US has plunged its recycling markets into crisis with nearly all 50 states reporting “Noticeable” or “Heavy” disruption.

Advocates of Zero Waste and Sustainable Materials Management (separate, but related approaches to resource efficiency) want consumers and businesses to start asking hard questions: What does it mean to throw something away? Where does it go, and what happens to it? 

Because convenience is often paramount in today’s society, it’s easy to toss something in the trash and never think about it again. But as the world’s consumer society grows, the environmental impacts of once-through material consumption continues to grow and with burgeoning awareness of the ocean plastic emergency, the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind,” is being exposed for the fraud it has always been. 

In addition, materials production, solid waste generation, and management account for at least 10 to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and represents a vital part of the solution to the climate crisis. There truly is no “away” on this finite planet of ours.

Yet, despite the economic and environmental importance of recovering and reusing discarded materials, there are currently no environmental performance standards governing solid waste management programs in the United States. However, the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Performance, or SWEEP, Standard is working to fill that gap. 

SWEEP is a voluntary environmental performance standard that focuses on municipal solid waste management programs and the business and industrial activities that deliver them. Similar to the popular green building rating system, LEED, those who meet the requirements of the standard will receive SWEEP certification. The program aims to transform the market by establishing consistent definitions of environmental performance benchmarks, integrating policy and practice, and rewarding leadership in sustainable materials management approaches to discarded materials. 

SWEEP is comprised of two complementary and reinforcing performance requirements for  Local Governments and the Industry Companies that support local government programs.

Performance Categories, KPIs, and Credits

With a 100-point-based system similar to LEED, SWEEP evaluates the environmental, economic, and social aspects of both the local government and the waste industry. Those seeking SWEEP certification must meet the requirements of either the Local Government or the Industry Standards which are composed of the same five core Performance Categories:

  1. Sustainable Materials Management Policy (SMMP)
  2. Waste Generation & Prevention (WGP)
  3. Solid Waste Collection (SWC)
  4. Post-Collection Recovery (PCR)
  5. Post-Collection Disposal (PCD)
  6. Innovation*

*In addition to the five core Performance Categories, a separate Innovation performance category will recognize measures and approaches that are beyond best practice.

Within the Performance Categories, credit is given for specific, measurable, and verified actions. These actions are organized through four Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to help measure success:

  1. Efficiency and Effectiveness
  2. Environmental Performance
  3. Economic Performance
  4. Public Participation, Working Conditions, and Social Impact

Differences between Local Government and Industry Requirements

Although both standards are composed of the same Performance Categories, the scope and applicability of each credit within the categories are specific to the focus of the particular standard. Some credit requirements are essentially identical for both the Local Government and Industry participants, whereas others are unique to the entity seeking certification. These different types of credits are designated as “Reciprocal” and “Non-Reciprocal.”

Reciprocal Credit actions are transferable between the Local Government and Private Sector Companies. They reflect identical waste management activities that can be carried out by either party.

Non-Reciprocal Credit activities cannot be transferred between the Local Government and Private Sector Companies. The specified actions must be undertaken individually because the requirements are different or independent for each party.

A Common Framework for a Diverse Nation

One challenge with creating a national standard stems from the fact that no two waste management systems in the country are the same. And, because of the lack of common standards and common methods, comparing the activities and performance of two different communities can be like comparing apples to oranges. 

SWEEP believes that setting a common benchmark for communities can help make these comparisons meaningful, as well as spur a “virtuous cycle.” By using common definitions and methods, communities can more accurately assess not only absolute performance but also relative performance. The goal of SWEEP is to help provide a universal framework defining Sustainable Materials Management, that Local Governments can use to improve the policies and programs that make up their waste management programs. 

In subsequent articles, we will describe in more detail each of the substantive areas of SWEEP and how industry professionals can get involved.

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