Sustainable materials management (SMM) is a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire lifecycles. It represents a change in how our society thinks about the use of natural resources and environmental protection. By examining how materials are used throughout their lifecycle, an SMM approach seeks to:
- Use materials in the most productive way with an emphasis on using less;
- Reduce toxic chemicals and environmental impacts throughout the material life cycle;
- Assure we have sufficient resources to meet today’s needs and those of the future.
The Case for a Lifecycle Approach to Materials Management
How our society uses materials is fundamental to our economic and environmental future. Global competition for finite resources will intensify as world population and economies grow. More productive and less impactful use of materials helps our society remain economically competitive, contributes to our prosperity and protects the environment in a resource-constrained future.
U.S. and global consumption of materials has been increasing rapidly. People have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than all previous history. And of all the materials consumed in the U.S. over the last 100 years, more than half were consumed in the last 25 years. 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.
By looking at a product's entire lifecycle we can find new opportunities to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources, and reduce costs. For example, a product is re-designed so it is manufactured using different, fewer, less toxic and more durable materials. It is designed so that at the end of its useful life it can be readily disassembled. The manufacturer maintains a relationship with the customer to ensure best use of the product, its maintenance and return at end-of-life. This helps the manufacturer identify changing needs of their customers, create customer loyalty, and reduce material supply risk. Further, the manufacturer has a similar relationship with its supply chain, which helps the manufacturer respond more quickly to changing demands, including reducing supply chain environmental impacts.
Learn more about the case for a lifecycle approach to materials management in Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead.
A Lifecycle Perspective
Materials have environmental impacts throughout their lifecycles. The major stages in a materialís lifecycle are raw material
acquisition, materials manufacture, production, use/reuse/maintenance, and waste management.
(Learn more about lifecycle assessment).
Adapted from "Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging,"
EPA is playing a leadership role in advancing sustainable materials management by convening dialogues with key SMM stakeholders, providing sound science and information to the public, and establishing challenges to specific sectors to achieve shared goals.
EPA plays an important role in facilitating and advancing the national dialogue around sustainable materials management to address today's environmental and health issues, as well as foreseeing and preventing those of tomorrow.
Providing Sound Science and Information
EPA supports national discussion and decision making on sustainable materials management by making sound science and information accessible to the public.
- Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: Facts and Figures
- Sustainability and the USEPA
- Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)
EPA is targeting specific sectors to demonstrate SMM strategies in action:
- Federal Green Challenge calls on federal agencies to lead by example in reducing the government's environmental impact
- Food Recovery Challenge challenges participants to feed people not landfills
- Electronics Challenge seeks to increase the recycling of used electronics by certified recyclers