Traditionally, state and local governments have implemented an integrated solid waste management (ISWM) policy-based system to keep pace with high levels of consumption. This approach works to reduce and recover municipal solid waste when feasible and then dispose of the remaining wastes in a manner that is both environmentally and economically sound.

The goal of ISWM is to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills by applying the following U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waste management hierarchy:

  1. Source reduction and reuse
  2. Recycling and composting
  3. Energy recovery
  4. Treatment and disposal

This approach historically has included weight-based measurement of the waste materials. The weight and/or volume of materials and products entering the waste stream and managed through various waste management methods are measured as part of ISWM. This information is used to measure progress in reaching waste reduction goals and to plan for development of needed solid waste facilities. Sustainable materials management (SMM) evaluates specific products’ life cycle impact on the environment.

Now, instead of focusing on waste management, states and local governments are shifting their focus to sustainable materials management. This transition from the ISWM system to SMM policies and programs will require a new framework and strategies.

SMM focuses on using and reusing materials more productively over their life cycle. The goal is to use resources in the most productive way with an emphasis on using less resources, reducing toxic materials and minimizing environmental impacts.

To understand the full potential of SMM, a life cycle analysis is used — an environmental management approach that looks holistically at products, processes, activities and materials. It assesses the range of environmental impacts made throughout the full life cycle of a product, from materials acquisition to manufacturing use and final disposition. When products are made with sustainable materials, they can achieve their maximized life cycle, providing greater assurance that sufficient resources will be available to meet current and future needs.

Although the benefits of SMM are substantial, the process requires an understanding of the technical, business, environmental and financial issues associated with the design and management of products and materials. When waste materials are managed improperly, it can lead to environmental and human health risks as well as an unnecessary financial burden. This type of transition requires a carefully planned approach.

The primary challenge includes getting key stakeholders on board and encouraging industry innovation. The change in perspective needs to occur all the way from a product manufacturing level to the consumer level. It also will take government support to encourage all parts of society to use materials effectively and efficiently. In addition to reviewing and updating product and services procurement practices, governments need to implement public policy that creates clear direction and provides financial incentives to foster SMM.

With state and local leadership supported by effective stakeholder engagement, the transition from ISWM to SMM can improve the use of natural resources and result in long-lasting environmental and economic benefits.


Municipal resource management options can range from recycling and composting to zero waste.

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Robert Craggs is national technical services leader for the solid waste and resource recovery group at Burns & McDonnell. He serves as the representative for the Planning and Management Technical Division on the advisory board for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and is a board member for the Recycling Association of Minnesota.