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EPA shifts focus to life cycle materials control

Anne Bedarf

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
EPA shifts focus to life cycle materials control
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     In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the report, "Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead," its 2020 Vision Roadmap describing how government and its partners can work towards sustainable materials management practices. By shifting the focus from traditional waste management toward life cycle materials management, they hope to create a more ecologically and economically appropriate model of materials circulating in a closed loop system. In support of this vision, the EPA recently held its fourth annual Natural Resource Conservation Challenge Workshop in Arlington, VA, with the focus on the idea "Materials Matter: A Life Cycle Approach to Materials Management."

     Specifically, EPA defines materials management as a focus on:
     1. Knowing and reducing the life cycle impacts across the supply chain;
     2. Using less material inputs (reduce, reuse, recycle);
     3. Using less toxic and more renewable materials; and
     4. Considering whether services can be substituted for products.
     Accordingly, the meeting focused on how these principles can benefit the following priority areas:
     1. Municipal solid waste reduction/reuse/recycling;
     2. Green initiatives, including green buildings;
     3. Industrial materials reuse/recycling; and
     4. Priority chemicals reduction.
     There were a few themes of particular importance to the packaging industry presented within the life cycle framework. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) was a consistent theme throughout the meeting, with topics including financing approaches for municipal waste reduction, by-product synergy, green chemistry and composting. The successes of EPR in the U.S. for electronics, and in other countries for packaging, coupled with the failure of municipalities to secure sustainable financing for waste management and the business advantages of transforming waste to raw material, all point to policy shifts in this direction. Indeed, according to a March 31 article in The Economist, 31 U.S. states, the European Union, Canada and Japan have product-specific EPR laws, while a new law in Maine opens the door to possible implementation of the numerous packaging-specific EPR discussions happening in both government and industry.
Another theme of the EPA meeting was the emerging trend toward the creation of regional materials management systems. The collapse of export recycling markets in 2008, coupled with increasing domestic demand for cost-effective recycled materials, underlie the growth in this area. Many presenters highlighted the ways in which municipal waste, food waste and industrial waste can be transformed into materials integral to the support of local and regional economies.
      The Chicago Waste-to-Profit Network exemplifies the successes possible when "by-product synergy" is developed. A partnership of the Chicago Manufacturing Center, City of Chicago, State of Illinois, and Region V EPA, the network's mission connects well to that of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), but with a Chicago-centric focus: "The Waste to Profit Network breaks down the barriers to cross-industry communication, as well as the barriers between government and industry and between small companies and large, by fostering material-centric dialogue and working across groups to identify supply chain localization and waste minimization opportunities." Key functions of the network include technical support, relationship building, reliability and documentation.
      Much of the network's successes have focused on industrial materials. However, packaging waste synergies have been identified and are growing. One example includes SPC member Smurfit-Stone, which was able to recover a significant amount of black plastic container waste from a landscaping company. The return on investment into the network through fees was recouped within six months as a result of reduced waste fees.
     The relationship-building aspect of the network should not be underestimated. Whether we are talking about EPR, supply chain sustainability, waste exchange, package development, or more widespread use of green chemistry principles, collaboration and trust building will ultimately contribute to the "sustainability" of our efforts toward creating systems that result in triple bottom-line successes. This is apparent in the continuing collaborative aspects and achievements of the SPC.

About the Author(s)

Anne Bedarf

Senior Manager, GreenBlue Sustainable Packaging Coalition

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