Advancing Sustainable Materials Management at the G7

By Mathy Stanislaus

Recently, I represented the United States at the kick-off event of the G7 Alliance for Resource Efficiency in Berlin, Germany. “The Alliance” is a result of this summer’s G7 Leaders agreement that sustainably produced renewable resources should be a key priority. In the United States, we call this sustainable materials management, or SMM. SMM uses life cycle analysis and systems thinking to reduce environmental and other impacts as we use and manage material resources flowing through the economy, from extraction or harvest of materials and food (e.g., mining, forestry, and agriculture), to production and transport of goods, provision of services, reuse of materials, and if necessary disposal.

The kick-off event for the G7 Alliance for Resource Efficiency was co-chaired by Germany’s Federal Ministries for Economic Affairs and Energy; and the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. The alliance was established to share best practices on how to use natural resources more efficiently, which will protect jobs, create new ones, and strengthen economies while protecting the environment. Earlier this year, the leaders of the G7 pointed out the importance of this work: “For every one percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP), raw material use has risen by 0.4 percent . . . much of raw material input in industrial economies is returned to the environment as waste with[in] one year. . . Unsustainable consumption of natural resources and concomitant environmental degradation translates to increased business risks through higher material costs, as well as supply uncertainties and disruptions.”

At the kick-off event, a number of corporations including General Motors, Toyota, Werner & Mertz and Tarkett shared their success in establishing systems to maximize the reuse and reengineering of materials that advances their bottom line. In addition to G7 countries and the EU Commission, a number of international organizations including World Economic Forum, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Bank, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), International Resources Panel, World Trade Organization and International Labor Organization, discussed the role of multilateral cooperation in fostering resource efficiency and areas for future cooperation. Academics and researchers such as Professor Marian Chertow from Yale University presented on research and innovation efforts to promote resource efficiency. The conversation focused on how best to establish a network of best practices that result in tangible, concrete outcomes.  There was a general view that the Alliance should prioritize activities, bring in business up front and effectively communicate both best practices and the rationale for advancing resources efficiency/SMM.  Many noted the importance of engaging countries beyond the G7 because of the global nature of material flows, including resources, manufacturing and products.

The conversation doesn’t end in Berlin. We continue to advance concrete actions to advance SMM both domestically and internationally, in partnership with businesses, states and local governments, NGOs and academia. Next spring, we will host a follow up G7 Alliance event on supply chains, with a focus on the auto sector.  Getting organizations to identify and address impacts across their value chain, in particular the supply chain, is critical for sustainability. However, the complexity of supply chains can make this challenging, including the flow of information within the supply chain. The auto sector is actively engaged in improving their operations, supply chain, and communities in which they operate. The workshop will focus on identifying and sharing best practices and successes in the auto sector that are transferrable to other sectors.

Leading up to the US event, the Alliance will hold workshops to identify and share best practices.  The UK October 29-30, 2015 workshop will focus on “industrial symbiosis” –an approach to directly match industry sectors and facilities to maximize the reuse of materials in manufacturing.  Under this practice the wastes or byproducts of one industrial facility becomes a resource for another facility. The US Business Council for Sustainable Development is working with companies, cities, communities and governments to advance this concept in the US.  After the event, a workshop will be held in Germany to discuss best practice examples of innovative bio-based products, value chains and resource efficiency in the building sector. They will assess the resulting opportunities, in particular for rural areas and discuss potential international cooperation on the topic.

Altogether, there are many promising efforts underway advancing and promoting resource efficiency and sustainable materials management. It’s exciting to be a part of and I was proud to represent the US in this effort. The challenge is to translate these efforts into concrete changes that achieve the promise of the economic, environmental and social benefits.

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