Sustainable Materials Management

Historically, much of the nation’s resource conservation efforts have focused on decisions to reuse or recycle materials that would otherwise be disposed of as waste. However, this represents only a fraction of all the opportunities available to conserve resources.Product Life Cycle

Through a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) approach, organizations can begin to change the way our society protects the environment and conserves resources for future generations. SMM is a systemic approach that seeks to reduce materials use and their associated environmental impacts over their entire life cycle: starting with extraction of natural resources, innovative product design and decisions on recycling or final disposal.

A SMM approach changes how we think about environmental protection and recognizes the impacts of the vast amount of materials we consume.

Indeed, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), SMM is defined 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”.



Image Source: The Flow of Materials; SSM,The road ahead (EPA)


Challenges for Business & Govenment

According to the study: ”SMM for Europe, from Efficiency to Effectiveness”, a comprehensive materials management approach at both the government and business level will have a positive impact on climate change, food sourcing and production, living/housing, transportation and human development.

Governments and businesses will each face important challenges in order to bring sustainability to the forefront, establishing it as a high priority in their roadmaps for economic and human development.



  1. Adoption of new business models

  2. In-depth life-cycle analysis and environmental design

  3. Innovation beyond production efficiency

  4. Implementation of sustainable products & services



  1. Policy mix of instruments

  2. Policy integration

  3. Policy assessment

  4. Development of indicators and improvement of measurements

  5. Stimulation of R&D

  6. Establishing new macro-economic models


A more detailed explanation of these points can be found at the here, or in the original document: "SMM for Europe, from Efficiency to Effectiveness".


Establishing a SMM Strategy

According to architect William McDonough, "Design is the first signal of human intention”. It is at the design stage that decisions are made that determine impacts throughout a material’s life-cycle. SMM involves maximizing positive (and minimizing negative) impacts to the environment and human health and well-being through design. A focus on safety and sustainability at each life-cycle stage ensures that risks are not shifted from one stage in the value chain to another. Economic and social outcomes are optimized while natural capital is preserved.

The question therefore arises, as to how an organization should set out to effect change in their structure, operations and strategic planning in order to meet the challenges outlined above. According to the OECD, establishing a strategic vision with realistic targets is vital. The following broad categories set out the rationales provided for public or private target setting:


  • Provide a future vision/inspiration for action

  • Coordinate actions among various actors

  • Provide a mid-term constraint as a bridge or means to encourage society to be prepared for a future expected reality

  • Provide a metric of success against which progress can be measured; and as a signal of action on an issue


As a strategy is laid out and goals established, targets can be categorized depending on their duration, scope, difficulty and impact.

Large global corporations such as Procter & Gamble, Coca Cola, Adobe Systems, Philips and Marks & Spencer have laid out very ambitions sustainability roadmaps based on visions to: source 100% recyclable materials, zero-waste to landfill, switching from hydrocarbon- to plant-based plastics, etc. Read on to the success stories for a more details!

For more information on setting goals and laying out strategies, go to Chapter 2 of the the OECD report: Sustainable Materials Management - Making Better use of Resources. This book is free to view online.


Success Stories

Recology: The City of San Francisco and IBM

(Waste Diversion)

Recology contracts with the City of San Francisco for waste management and resource recovery, contributing to the City's goals to divert nearly 80% ot their waste from going to landfill. However, as the country's greenest city, SF has more ambitious plans, striving to become zero-waste by 2020. Recology has thus partenered with IBM to establish computer and IT systems capable of analytics-based strategies to save landfill space, energy, oil and millions of trees.

With the use of IBM’s computational systems, Recology pinpoints the location, types and amount of waste that need to be collected for sorting or composting. Furthermore, analysis of multiple big-data sets to manage the routing and dispatching of collection trucks has already created a more efficient and flexible system. This has saved time and money by reducing wear and tear on vehicles as well as fuel consumed during trips.

Recology partners with cities in California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada, managing municipal disposal processes and services that span the needs of urban, suburban and rural communities. Their services include urban cleaning, collection, sorting, transfer, recovery and landfill management.






As one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world, this multinational company has centered its sustainability efforts on innovations in the design of their products, geared towards end-of- life and recycling. Currently, e-waste pertaining to legacy electronics products should be disposed of in specialized plants where toxic elements like cadmium, mercury, lead and beryllium can be safely removed without endagering the health of workers and communities.

Philips aims to stand out through the environmental performance of their products, which include designing for energy efficiency, chemical content of products, lifetime reliability and recyclability amongst others. Philips therefore supports the principle of Individual Producer Responsibility (IPR) as it can create financial incentives for producers to reduce the environmental impact of their products at the end of life through ecodesign measures.

They are also a current charter member of StEP, a United Nations-supported organization that has set out to solve the e-waste problem worldwide through campaigns in policy, product redesign/reuse, recycling and awareness.


EPA Federal Green Challenge

(US Federal Agencies)

As part of the EPA’s effort to stimulate government agencies to become more sustainable, they have launched the Federal Green Challenge. This is a national effort under the Sustainable Materials Management Program, challenging EPA and other federal agencies throughout the country to lead by example in reducing the Federal Government's environmental impact.

Federal offices or facilities are challenged to tackle multiple target areas such as waste, electronics, purchasing, energy, water, or transportation, and are encouraged to choose 2 of these targets and set measurable annual improvements.

The EPA gives out national and regional awards every year to the highest achievers. Winners are selected by sector (energy, waste, transortation, etc) and region, with an overall winner chosen every year. For instance, the 2013 overall winner was NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in NM, for their efforts in processing over 10,000 tons of concrete debris onsite, converting it to reusable road base material.

In the official winners announcement, the EPA reported national agencies saved U.S. taxpayers over $133 million through adoption of green challenge initiatives.


Marks & Spencer


This UK multinational has set out to brand itself “The most sustainable retailer in the world”. They started out “small” in 2006, through their “Look behind the Label” campaign, where they committed to source Fairtrade tea and coffee, buy from sustainable fisheries and purchase clothing using environmentally friendly textile dyes and Fairtrade cotton. That Christmas, the company introduced a range of food products to support the housing charity “Shelter”.

The following year, they laid out their Plan A (“because there is no ‘Plan B’ ”) with over 100 commitments over 5 years to address climate change, waste, sustainable raw materials, 'fair partnership' and health, with the aim that by 2012, it would:

  • Become carbon neutral

  • Send no waste to landfill

  • Extend sustainable sourcing

  • Help improve the lives of people in their supply chain

  • Help customers and employees live a healthier life-style

Despite the onset of the recession and an 18% fall in share price in January 2008, the company confirmed that they would be continuing with the plan, saying that there were 'compelling commercial — as well as moral — reasons to do so'.

As of August 2008, M&S had three wind turbines in operation, generating enough power to supply three stores via the National Grid. In April 2009 the company began purchasing 2.6 TWh of renewable energy (wind and hydroelectric), enough to power all Marks & Spencer stores and offices in England and Wales.

They have since enhanced their Plan A, and as of 2013, the have increased the number of commitments to 180, achievable by 2015.


Enrique Sterling

July, 2013


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