The Sustainable Materials Management Coalition (SMMC) released a report recently on how to maximize a product’s environmental benefits throughout its life cycle. To achieve this, the report recommends government and recycling leaders focus on reducing waste generation in addition to increasing the national recycling rate.

The report states that reducing the environmental impact of a material’s use across the entire life cycle shouldn’t be limited to recycling. Things like energy consumption and greenhouse gas reduction should also be considered, and have a far greater impact on the environment, according to the report.

SMMC is an industry coalition that includes representatives from businesses, government and academia.

The group noted in its paper that reduced generation also takes into account extraction, processing, manufacturing and transportation of materials.

A tangible example of this can be seen in coffee packaging. Research cited in the report compared three different packaging types: steel cans, plastic tubs and flexible laminates (pods). Studies found using flexible laminates for coffee offered a 400 percent benefit in energy consumption compared with use of steel cans and a 1000 percent benefit in greenhouse gas emissions.

Even though coffee pods aren’t recyclable, the report states, “the environmental benefits of making and using smaller, lighter products and packages may be large enough that we need to accept not being able to recycle them.”

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote a framework for sustainable materials management. The recent report by SMMC says the EPA should continue to follow its own guidelines, as well as assess the waste generation rate and recycling rate for ways to reduce material consumption, greenhouse gases and energy consumption.

Mathy Stanislaus, the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, offered a letter of support for the SMMC report.

“I’m pleased to see the SMMC recognizes the important contribution of the [EPA’s] Facts and Figures report and the thoughtful suggestions about how to improve the information to make it more useful to our stakeholders,” Stanislaus noted. “I agree that building on the Facts and Figures report is an important step to support measurement goals and document progress.”