The 5W’s of Sustainable Materials Management

March 7, 2024 | Published by Julie Buchanan

What is sustainable materials management?

Sustainable materials management is a systematic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their life cycles. The emphasis is not only on using less, but on using materials to their fullest extent. The concept may sound complex, but it doesn’t have to be.

The graphic above depicts one version of a sustainable materials management hierarchy, which ranks strategies from most to least environmentally preferred. This hierarchy, developed by solid waste management consultant GBB, Inc., acknowledges there is no single preferred management strategy for all forms of waste. At the top, or most preferred, is preventing, rethinking and redesigning our materials.. At bottom, or least preferable, is unregulated disposal, which is essentially littering or illegal dumping.

CVWMA supports a circular economy for the region’s waste, rather than a linear model where products are purchased, used and thrown away. The authority encourages sustainable materials management by promoting the 3R’s: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. The concept can go much further, however, and is applicable to the design, manufacture, repair and conversion of a material or product.

Who practices sustainable materials management?

Everyone can. Sustainable materials management isn’t only for manufacturers or big businesses. It is for workplaces, schools, households and individuals. We all can take steps to prevent and divert waste going to a landfill. For example, when we choose to buy an item with less packaging, we are practicing sustainable materials management (that would be the “Reduce, Conserve, Minimize” step pictured above). A landfill operator who effectively captures methane gas from the landfill and uses it for energy is engaged in it, as well. Many localities in the U.S. have adopted specific plans for sustainable materials management.

When did sustainable materials management become a focus?

Nature has always practiced its own sustainable materials management. In nature, everything is a resource to another living thing, and anything unused eventually returns to nature. Humans have been practicing sustainable materials management for a good while. Archeological evidence shows farmers amending agricultural soils with manure as far back as 5000 B.C. That’s just one example.

Why does any of this matter?

The way we use materials is fundamental to the economy and the environment. As world populations increase, so does competition for limited natural resources. Being smarter with our use of those resources is financially and ecologically beneficial. Making aluminum cans from recycled aluminum saves 90% of the energy needed to create cans from new aluminum. That’s something we at CVWMA see every day!

Where can I learn more?

Some resources for more information:

Sustainable Materials Management Basics (U.S. EPA)

Center for Sustainable Materials Management

Planning for Sustainable and Material Waste Management (American Planning Association)



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