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A sustainable materials management approach to packaging

A sustainable materials management approach to packaging
GreenBlue has extracted three key principles or axes around which it is now building an operational framework for SMM.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is “increasingly recognized as a policy approach that can make a key contribution to green growth…”  This is because, as the OECD also notes, “The way economies use material resources determines to a significant extent what environmental pressures are being generated and SMM can help to better manage this linkage.” 

Helping organizations better manage material flows has been inherent in the work of GreenBlue, and in particular through its project the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). For example, the SPC has always promoted life cycle thinking to identify the impacts of materials throughout the packaging life cycles—from manufacture to end of use, thereby influencing better designs. This year, GreenBlue is making the link between its work of the past decade and SMM more explicit by adopting the internationally known SMM agenda as its primary approach to helping companies address the complexities of material stewardship and become more sustainable enterprises.

In embracing the SMM agenda, GreenBlue has extracted three key principles or axes around which it is now building an operational framework, which captures the closed-loop philosophy that is the foundation of the SPC’s work. These practical and pragmatic, yet holistic, principles are Use Wisely, Eliminate Toxicity and Recover More.

The SPC’s work connects to Sustainable Material Management along each of the three axes:

Use Wisely encompasses not only the issues of sourcing of resources, but also extends into production practices and is applicable to all packaging material. Sustainable sourcing of raw materials is a growing concern, as demand increases and resources are depleted. The SPC uses the power of collective learning and an engaged membership to raise the industry’s knowledge base on key sustainability issues surrounding material selection and use. The SPC holds annual conferences that serve as a central mechanism to engage membership in discussions that highlight key issues companies need to navigate.

Eliminate Toxicity focuses on the material health to manage risk during production, use and disposal. Understanding the hazards inherent in materials used in the industrial system can lead to greener pathways and better product stewardship. This focus is captured in the Material Health aspect of the SPC’s Definition of Sustainable Packaging. Eliminate Toxicity emphasizes environmental impacts of the product and package itself, with the goal to remove the inherent toxicity of the substances used for people and planet. The SPC connects to the process by engaging member companies on best practices and continuous improvement. 

Recover More encompasses all manner of material use efficiencies from manufacture, distribution and end of use. For packaging this is the most self-evident of the three principles as packaging often suffers a good deal of negative publicity due to poor recovery. Much of our current work at the SPC is dedicated to working through issues of packaging material recovery, from helping companies choose materials at the design stage that are more likely to be effectively recovered, to working with municipalities, trade associations and other interested parties on end of life treatment.

In some ways, SMM is taking the SPC back to its roots. In other ways, it is elevating the conversation to help the SPC cultivate material stewardship, mobilize industry and build tools for transparency to ensure packaging is contributing to a more sustainable system of commerce.

We suggest you read the OECD policy brief ( to learn more.

Author Katherine O'Dea is senior director of innovation and advisory services for GreenBlue. For more information about GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit

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