Sustainable Materials Management: A Life-cycle Perspective

As companies and decision-makers seek sustainable ways to manage resources and meet consumer needs, they are confronted with an array of choices, labels and practices that claim to be better for the environment. Terms such as “recyclable,” “recycled-content,” “biodegradable,” or “organic,” all suggest a more sustainable use of resources, but all focus on a limited set of environmental impacts. At EPA, we found that asking which of these practices is better for the environment may not be the right question. We’ve found benefit by taking a broader perspective that considers the full “life cycle” of a product.

Governments and businesses can make better-informed choices with “life-cycle thinking,” or considering the environmental impacts caused at all of the stages of a product’s life cycle. These impacts may include releases of pollutants to air or water; raw material depletion; loss of trees, vegetation and wildlife through disturbance of land and water ecosystems; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The stages of a product’s life cycle include extraction of resources, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management. Focusing on just one stage (such as waste management) or one effect (such as organically-raised or grown) can be misleading in total environmental impact. A broader look at life-cycle considerations can show unsuspected or surprising effects – such as high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from washing clothes with hot as opposed to cold water (since fossil fuels were likely burned for the energy used to heat the water).

Life-cycle thinking can also cause us to reexamine some beliefs on what are the best choices for the environment. For example, not only whether packaging is easily recyclable or not should be considered, but also the production and transportation energy and GHG costs related to the composition and weight of the packaging. Life-cycle thinking can help us ask better sustainability questions, leading to reduced overall impacts and using our natural resources most effectively. To minimize environmental impacts – water and energy use, releases to air and water, greenhouse gas emissions, land use impacts, etc. – our actions and decisions need to be informed by the full life-cycle perspective. When products are reused and materials are recycled, we avoid the need to extract new raw materials to conserve resources. Life-cycle thinking can help us ask better sustainability questions, leading to reduced overall impacts and using our natural resources most effectively. To minimize environmental impacts – water and energy use, releases to air and water, greenhouse gas emissions, land use impacts, etc. – our actions and decisions need to be informed by the full life-cycle perspective. When products are reused and materials are recycled, we avoid the need to extract new raw materials to conserve resources. For every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.

This life-cycle perspective is central to our Sustainable Materials Management program, where EPA is expanding from our historic waste-management viewpoint, to consider impacts across the entire life cycle of a material, product or service. At EPA, we are developing analytical tools to help decision-makers consider life-cycle implications. I collaborated with the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition and provided input on a guidance document that illustrates the principles and benefits of life-cycle thinking, intended to help organizations consider the full range of environmental impacts that products have throughout their lives. The report, Guidance on Life-Cycle Thinking and Its Role in Environmental Decision Making, provides advice to help governments and businesses make more informed decisions when buying greener and safer products.

Mathy Stanislaus is the Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), leading the Agency’s land cleanup, solid waste and emergency response programs. Mr. Stanislaus is a chemical engineer and environmental lawyer with over 20 years of experience in the environmental field in the private and public sectors. He received his law degree from Chicago Kent Law School and Chemical Engineering Degree from City College of New York.

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