Materials Management

Materials management requires active examination of routine purchasing, use and disposal decisions in ways that reflect their interrelatedness and their impact on the environment. A materials management program includes elements related to procurement, operations and maintenance, reuse and recycling, and disposal.

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A sustainable materials management program starts with four simple questions:

  • What is in it? - Components
  • Where is it coming from? - Source
  • How much of it is there? - Usage level
  • Where is it going when we are done using it? - Disposal methods

Traditional Approaches highlights the principal activities associated with the acquisition and discarding of goods:

  • Procurement
  • Routine Operation & Maintenance (O&M)
  • Traditional Disposal Methods
  • Traditional Recycling

Environmental Challenges presents two of the biggest sustainability-related challenges associated with the traditional management of materials:

  • Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
  • Diversion of solid waste from landfills

The goals of sustainable materials management are to maximize the use of renewable sources in manufacturing processes, to extend the usable life of products through reuse and repurposing, and to minimize or eliminate disposal methods that pollute. Three effective approaches to accomplish these goals are presented in:

Sustainability Principles include:

  • Establish Environmentally Sustainable Procurement Policies
  • Implement Effective Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Programs
  • Seventy Percent or More Landfill Diversion Rate
  • Institute Full-Cost and Life-Cycle Accounting Practices

Sustainable Strategies include:

  • Integrated Waste Management
  • Comprehensive Waste Stream Analysis
  • Extended Producer Responsibility Policies and Contracts


Managing solid waste is a key function of local governments. In 2006, the United States generated 251 million tons of trash. The average American produces 4.6 pounds of solid waste daily and residential waste comprises almost two-thirds of municipal solid waste. See Figure 1.

Cities currently rely on landfills as the primary disposal method for this waste. Interestingly, the number of landfills in the United States has decreased dramatically (see Figure 2); however, the size of the landfills has increased just as dramatically.

When local governments examine all the ways in which materials pass through their communities - procurement, operations and maintenance, reuse and recycling, and disposal - they often discover dramatic opportunities to reduce their environmental impact.

Local and state governments combined purchase over a trillion dollars worth of products annually. This means that the products they buy can influence production practices and ultimately transform the volume and types of municipal solid waste produced.

This approach allows cities to take advantage of synergies that can only be achieved through complementary programs. For example,
Green purchasing and recycling programs can reduce waste, while also producing revenue and saving energy.
Refurbished electronics and other durable goods save money, divert harmful chemicals from landfills, and create skilled jobs.
It is critical for cities to recognize these connections in order to evaluate intelligently their material management choices.


The consumption of material products directly contributes to environmental degradation through:

The mining, extraction, harvesting of nonrenewable natural resources;
Manufacturing processes that are inefficient and that produce pollutant by-products;
Long transportation routes and cheap fossil fuels that combine to expand the carbon footprint of manufactured materials; and
Disposal methods (landfills, incinerators, etc.) that pollute the land, air, and water.
The harvesting and extraction of raw materials have had devastating impacts on local ecosystems in many areas. For example, practices such as strip mining have led to deforestation, contaminated water sources, and visual blight.

So-called "convenience" products have emphasized throwaway packaging, which contribute to the alarming growth of the size of landfills internationally. In some countries, poor landfill controls have combined with poor economic conditions for devastating effect on community health.

Heightened awareness is often not enough as people continue to acquire and use products with little to no knowledge of their true environmental costs. The lack of transparency in supply chains means that end-users remain unaware of the negative environmental impacts associated with product manufacturing and transportation. Even certain environmentally sensitive practices by consumers can contribute to harmful impacts. For example, it is common for the United States to export recyclables to other countries for processing where, in the absence of strict regulatory controls, some rely on environmentally damaging processes.

Source Separated Recycling Ordinance: State of New Jersey

This recycling ordinance was created by the State of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection for municipalities to develop source separated collection of recyclables.

EPP Ordinance: Berkeley, Calif.

This 2004 Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Ordinance was created by the City of Berkeley to meet the goals of their Precautionary Principle Program.