This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Resource Recycling magazine. Subscribe today for access to all print content.


Sustainable Materials Management – or “SMM” for short – is a relatively new concept. Some recycling professionals use it as a fresh way of describing the integrated waste management hierarchy. But the U.S. EPA defines it more broadly: “a systems approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire life cycles.”

What exactly does this mean? The state of Oregon has been an early adopter of SMM (as defined by the EPA), and a new generation of policy and programs taking hold in the Beaver State provides some ideas of what SMM could look like in practice. This article describes Oregon’s SMM framework and explores how the concept is starting to change Oregon’s approach to recycling, most notably through efforts that aim to achieve the same environmental benefits of recycling using a broader suite of approaches.

A compelling notion from EPA

Oregon’s state environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was introduced to SMM through a foundational document published by the EPA in 2009. “Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead” makes a compelling case for this perspective on materials selection, usage and handling. It encourages states and others to manage products on a life-cycle basis and to accelerate dialogue on SMM.

In 2011 and 2012, DEQ worked with many external partners to explore what a state plan for SMM would look like. This culminated in “Materials Management in Oregon: 2050 Vision and Framework for Action.” Adopted by Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission, the “2050 Vision” charted a new direction, one that includes traditional recycling and solid waste initiatives, but in the larger context of taking actions to reduce environmental impacts across the full life cycle of materials. In the “2050 Vision,” recycling is not an end goal, but rather one of several means to an end: a desired future where Oregonians “produce and use materials responsibly, conserving resources, protecting the environment, and living well.”

A number of scientific studies identified by DEQ illustrate the limitations of recycling, and the need to broaden our collective toolbox of solutions. Indeed, a “recycling only” or “recycle everything” response will guarantee that solid waste disposal will be minimized, but it might not be optimal for the environment. Materials impact the environment in many ways, such as toxics and greenhouse gases, and the impacts of solid waste, at least from the U.S., tend to be relatively small. Reducing overall material use is essential. And because the impacts of producing materials are often much larger than the benefit of recycling them, using materials that have much lower production-related impacts – even if they don’t have recycling options – may result in lower overall impacts. For Oregon, recycling should be optimized to conserve resources and reduce pollution in all forms, as opposed to reducing solid waste alone.

Following adoption of the “2050 Vision,” DEQ worked with more partners on several legislative concepts. A trio of bills signed into law in 2015 confirmed this full life-cycle approach to materials management by setting new goals for Oregon, updating Oregon’s statewide waste policy, and allowing for a restoration of funds necessary to start implementing this new approach.

Oregon’s path to SMM

For more than a quarter century, Oregon law has required that larger cities and counties provide recycling opportunities for residents by implementing services from a legislated menu of elements. Most local governments issue franchises with private industry to provide some or all of these services. Costs are typically recouped through locally regulated rates.

This basic policy system has been supported by a strong recycling ethic among Oregonians, local community leadership, and access to end markets. Extended producer responsibility programs are also in place for e-scrap and paint, and Oregon has a bottle bill that has been regularly updated. All of this has led to a relatively robust overall recovery rate for the state – 42.6 percent in 2016, according to DEQ calculations.

A study commissioned by DEQ has identified the eight best opportunities for increasing plastics waste recovery. The recent and sudden collapse of export markets for recovered mixed plastics poses a new challenge but may ultimately spur investments in domestic processing infrastructure.

The “2050 Vision” keeps this basic system intact. In recycling, DEQ is now focusing more directly on environmental outcomes and closing service gaps. For example, due to a loophole in earlier legislation, residents in some multi-tenant buildings have not shared in the same recycling opportunities as their neighbors in single-family homes. The legislation from 2015 closes that loophole by 2022, giving DEQ and local programs time to identify practices, tools and resources that could improve services for this growing population.

On the markets front, Oregon in recent years has grown reliant on export buyers to process mixed paper and mixed plastics. China’s National Sword has significantly disrupted those exports, and the Western U.S. lacks significant processing capacity for mixed plastics. Oregon has seen only limited investments in recycling processing infrastructure for many years. Contamination in set-out recyclables has also grown. Mixed paper and plastics collected from some communities are now more expensive to recycle than landfill, and the loads no longer meet the standard of “recyclable material” as defined in Oregon state law.

Even before National Sword was announced, DEQ was advocating for greater emphasis on material quality. The 2015 legislation led to new administrative rules that require many local programs to conduct public outreach aimed at reducing contamination. If successful, this added focus will lower contamination rates, although likely not enough to satisfy China’s new standards. Improvements in sorting infrastructure and new markets will also be needed.

Previous analysis using EPA’s WARM tool was used to prioritize several materials for recovery, and the 2015 legislation, while updating statewide waste recovery goals for the waste stream in total (52 percent by 2020 and 55 percent by 2025), also established new statewide goals for three specific materials: plastics and food (25 percent recovery each by 2020), and carpet (25 percent by 2025). A study commissioned by DEQ has identified the eight best opportunities for increasing plastics waste recovery. The recent and sudden collapse of export markets for recovered mixed plastics poses a new challenge but may ultimately spur investments in domestic processing infrastructure. Separately, many local governments are moving ahead on increasing collections of food waste.

Consistent with a focus on environmental outcomes, the 2015 legislation also requires Oregon to calculate the environmental impacts, such as energy savings, of state and local waste recovery. Oregon has tracked waste recovery and calculated recovery rates at the state and local level since 1992, and all local “waste-sheds” currently have recovery goals that are expressed on the basis of weight of material (tons of waste recovered divided by tons of waste generated).

But not all materials – or recovery pathways – carry the same environmental benefits. A new project currently in development (called Environmental Impacts of Material Flows in Oregon, or IMFO) will evaluate the environmental impacts of waste recovery and generation. On the waste recovery side, results will inform new goals that are expressed in actual environmental impacts and help local programs target materials and markets that have greater environmental benefits. For example, glass recycled to cullet has significantly greater energy benefits than glass recycled as aggregate, and IMFO would help quantify that fact.

But IMFO will also demonstrate the upstream impacts of producing all of these materials and help to further shed light on the importance of a broader set of solutions, including waste prevention.

Moving up the hierarchy

Recycling is not the only strategy for realizing sustainable materials management. Prevention and reuse, prioritized in policy but often overlooked in practice, also have important roles to play.

Since 2001, Oregon has had alongside its legislated waste recovery goal a parallel goal to reduce overall waste generation. That goal can only be met through the “reduce” and “reuse” portions of the waste hierarchy. The waste generation goal has enabled Oregon DEQ to invest in prevention and reuse efforts unlike most other states. The 2015 legislation clarified and strengthened this goal, and also added new requirements for larger cities and counties to implement prevention and reuse projects alongside the provision of recycling opportunities.

While many local governments are looking to increase the collection of food waste, DEQ is investing higher in the hierarchy, and last year the department completed a strategic plan for preventing the wasting of food. This is a step rooted in the state’s intention to act in ways that will maximize benefit. According to the U.S. EPA, the greenhouse gas reduction benefit of not wasting 1 ton of food is six to seven times that of sending that ton to composting or digestion.

How can a state coordinate around this issue? DEQ is undertaking a major baseline study of the quantities, types and causes of wasted food in Oregon, and in 2018 the department plans to work closely with the Portland Metro regional government and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association to promote best practices to commercial kitchens.

In addition, a “wasted food, wasted money” ad campaign has been created for local use, and 2018 will also see completion of a major research project addressing edible food rescue pathways and a residential outreach campaign (designed for local use) that builds on new research into effective messages that better promote prevention and recovery. This last project responds to growing evidence that composting promotion can have mixed effects on prevention behaviors, and responds to a need to design outreach messages that enable both recovery and prevention.

Oregon officials are currently using published life-cycle assessments to determine the circumstances in which products labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” correlate with lower environmental impacts.

In 2017 DEQ also focused its materials management grant program on prevention. Six projects to reduce the wasting of food were selected for funding in 2017, compared with just one such project receiving support in the prior 20 years.

In parallel, DEQ has been advancing reuse and repair. A separate strategic plan, completed in 2016, identified building materials and clothing as priority materials. Targeted grants are funding material salvage and reuse projects across the state.

DEQ is also supporting the city of Portland in its building demolition policies (Portland recently became the first city in the nation to ban the mechanical demolition of older single-family homes). How does this tie to materials management? Deconstruction, as an alternative to mechanical demolition, allows more materials to be salvaged for reuse. DEQ has provided funding to support a workforce development initiative necessary to meet the increased demand for deconstruction services, and separately is identifying practices for reducing dispersion of lead dust from demolition.

Last year DEQ also awarded its first-ever grants directly to businesses in a pilot project to support workforce development needs in the reuse and repair of clothing, building materials and electronics, as well as a neighborhood tool-lending library.

Other new projects go even farther upstream into the realm of sustainable production and consumption. For example, a partnership with Oregon’s concrete industry is providing all concrete producers with free access to a tool that allows them to rapidly assess and disclose the life-cycle impacts of different concrete mixes and to compete in a growing market for low-carbon and low-impact building materials.

In the realm of packaging and foodservice ware, many businesses and institutional buyers are keen to produce or purchase “green” options. Decisions typically involve popular attributes such as “degradable,” “compostable” or “recyclable.” Previous evaluation has revealed instances in which these attributes don’t necessarily result in choices that have lower overall environmental impacts. So DEQ has commissioned – and plans to complete in the first half of 2018 – a review of a much larger number of published life-cycle assessments to determine under which circumstances these attributes correlate with lower environmental impacts. For example, “biodegradable” may be a desirable attribute for soaps, but in the packaging space, items bearing this tag are now clearly understood to result in increased methane emissions from landfills and potential disruption to plastics recycling.

Results of this descriptor study can be used to inform wiser decisions by industry and the public sector alike. While study results may ultimately challenge some popular wisdom regarding landfill avoidance, this is consistent with the materials management approach, which elevates broader environmental outcomes above narrow goals of solid waste reduction.

All concrete producers in Oregon now have access to a tool that allows them to disclose the life-cycle impacts of different concrete mixes and compete in a market for low-impact building materials.

Sustainability across the board

Materials have profound impacts on the environment. But for most materials, the large majority of environmental impacts are a result of production and use, not end-of-life management. Solid waste, in other words, represents a highly visible and emotionally resonant piece of a much larger story.

Recycling and composting need to be viewed as part of an expansive toolbox of options – and designed to work in harmony with other strategies. Recycling programs should aim first and foremost to provide industry with materials of sufficient quality to serve as feedstocks to displace virgin resources because that is the primary environmental benefit of recycling, at least in the U.S. And realizing deep cuts in resource use and pollution requires that material design and purchasing decisions consider a full suite of environmental impacts, not only solid waste avoidance and recycling.

SMM is a very broad approach that could be implemented in different ways. The approach being tested by Oregon is experimental and will evolve over time.

DEQ anticipates that Oregon’s “all of the above” approach, which marries recycling alongside reuse, prevention and upstream-focused programs, will deliver better benefits in environmental, public health and other social realms than focusing on recycling alone. It will likely also result in more stable and economically sustainable recycling services.

David Allaway is a senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and can be contacted at [email protected].

Shannon Davis is a manager in DEQ’s Materials Management Program and can be contacted at [email protected].