material lifecycle

Recycling Saves Resources and Creates Green Jobs

By Mathy Stanislaus

Recycling is an important and significant aspect of a material’s lifecycle. It helps reduce the use of raw materials in the manufacturing sector and conserves resources like timber, water and minerals. Over the next 15 years, global demand for materials is predicted to rise more than 35 percent. This makes the efficient use of natural resources vital for economic development. In an effort to promote resource conservation across the globe, leaders from the world’s largest economies formed The Alliance for Resource Efficiency.

The Alliance is an international initiative dedicated to developing new strategies for environmental conservation in ways that promote sustainable management of our natural resources. In the United States, we call this sustainable materials management, or SMM. SMM encourages consumers, businesses and communities to consider the entire lifecycle of the materials we use – 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. Considering the full lifecycle of a product allows us to minimize environmental impacts as we use and manage material resources flowing through the economy.

In the last several decades, through improved materials management practices, we have successfully raised the national recycling rate to 34%, reducing 186 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually. That rate represents 87 million tons of material that were recycled or composted. Every 10,000 metric tons of recyclables generates 37 jobs, which equates to $1.1 million in wages and $330,000 in tax revenues . By working together consumers, businesses and communities can build on this success.


Consider buying used clothing and building materials at reuse centers and consignment shops – they can be just as durable as a new product and save you money. Instead of discarding unwanted appliances, tools and electronics, try selling or donating them. This not only reduces waste, but it also benefits the community. What’s more, donating used items prevents goods from ending up in landfills and may create a tax benefit. Also, look for products with less packaging. The money manufacturers save by using less packaging is often passed down to you.


Businesses can utilize lifecycle analysis to make better decisions during product design, such as using fewer toxics and more materials that have a longer, useful life. To help conserve resources, businesses can practice careful industrial and product design that minimizes the use of virgin materials and reuses them in an effort to reduce environmental impacts.

Companies can establish policies that support using and purchasing recycled products and materials. By expanding workplace recycling programs to include all types of paper, businesses can reduce paper waste. Installing built-in recycling centers and receptacles throughout buildings can encourage employees to rethink how they dispose of their wastes.


Communities can make efforts to encourage and collaborate with both businesses and consumers. This can help ensure that materials are used more efficiently and effectively. Government organizations can also begin to create awareness for the environmental consequences of our actions when using materials and purchasing products.

Local governments have a central role in increasing recycling in their communities, as they are responsible for implementing effective materials management strategies in their areas. They can do their part to make recycling a priority by ensuring residents are aware of regulation and policies that simplify recycling in their homes.

Ongoing Efforts

Next spring, we will host an event on sustainable supply chains with a focus on the automotive sector. The workshop will focus on identifying and sharing best practices and successes that are transferrable to other industries.

This event, and many other promising efforts to come, brings us closer to advancing SMM and combating climate change both domestically and internationally. I am proud and excited to be a part of a strategic initiative that will help the United States achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Around the Water Cooler: Perpetual Plastics

By Dustin Renwick

Image courtesy State of Hawaii

Hawaii has become synonymous with tropical sunsets and legendary surfing. And trash. Ocean currents annually deliver 20 tons of refuse, much of it plastics, to the Big Island from the swirling mess called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Now, scientists expect added debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami.

I wish I could have learned about this firsthand, maybe when surfing, but instead, I watched a video as I ate dinner 5,000 miles from the 5oth state.

We rely on plastics for diverse products such as packaging, pipes and car parts. These strong, all-purpose materials are designed as stable substances – you don’t want your water bottle to disintegrate.

Because they’re so durable, plastics can outlive their creators.

EPA scientist Richard Zepp is working on this problem as part of the Pathfinder Innovation Projects that I’ve blogged about previously. He’s researching ways to shorten the material lifecycle of common plastic items.

Water, sunlight, and microbes dissolve a newspaper or a discarded banana peel, but plastics, such as polyethylene, have tightly packed molecule chains that are nearly impervious to forces that might return them to the natural ecosystem.

“We don’t know how long polyethylene will last in the environment,” Zepp said. “They use polyethylene as liners in landfills” because it’s so tough.

In his research, Zepp incorporates an additive, something called a pro-oxidant, that helps natural forces disrupt the molecule chains so a plastic will break down more quickly. Parts of the UV spectrum of sunlight interact with the pro-oxidants and “put a chink in the armor of the plastic,” he said, “even with polyethylene.”

This plastic then becomes brittle and more susceptible to natural abrasion.

“If you’re out in the environment, that’s a key to the breakdown of plastic – it becomes more readily attacked by bacteria, which will degrade it completely.”

Researching the whole lifecycle for plastics means we’re thinking about the reality that all garbage isn’t created (or destroyed) equally.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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