Why Include Materials Management in Climate Action Plans and Greenhouse Gas Inventories

Materials Management refers to how we manage material resources as they flow through the economy, from extraction or harvest of materials and food, production and transport of goods, provision of services, reuse of materials, recycling, composting, and disposal. Approximately 42% of GHG emissions in the U.S. are associated with these activities (see Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices). Materials management policies and programs designed to reduce these emissions can therefore play a significant role in federal, state and local climate change strategies. Materials management strategies are smart investments for state and local governments seeking to reduce GHG emissions.

To realize these GHG reduction opportunities, state and local governments need to change the way they approach conducting GHG emission inventories and incorporate new approaches into Climate Action Plans. A limited number of state and local governments have already adopted materials management strategies and a number of their approaches are described in this toolkit. In the near future, many state and local jurisdictions will be developing or updating a GHG Inventory and Climate Action Plan and outlining climate protection action steps to be taken.

The Importance of Materials Management: What Systems-based GHG Accounting Shows

The conventional lens through which greenhouse gas emissions are viewed is through the economic sectors in which they are released. By allocating emissions to economic sectors, the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions appear to occur in the electric power, transportation, and industrial sectors (34, 28, and 19 percent of emissions, respectively; EPA 2005). This view suggests that these three sectors are the most important to control in order to reduce overall emissions and address climate change. In sector-based GHG accounting “waste” appears as an almost trivial slice of the pie, if it appears at all (it is sometimes embedded in a sector called “commercial”). Local policy makers, planning staff, and citizen advisory groups examine these charts and quickly determine that “waste” and all the activities typically associated with traditional “waste” management are inconsequential for addressing greenhouse gas emissions, as they only represent 1 to 5 percent of the total emissions.

On the other hand, if we view the impacts of goods and materials through the life cycle of extracting raw materials, processing, manufacturing, transporting, using, and disposing of products, a different picture emerges. In a September 2009 report, Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices, US EPA employed such a “systems-based” method of allocating GHG emissions. This method is “helpful for framing opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through prevention-oriented mitigation strategies that act across an entire system.” The EPA Report reveals that 29 percent of United States total greenhouse gas emissions result from the provision of goods produced within the US. “Goods” includes all consumer products and packaging, including building components and passenger vehicles, but exclude food. The provision of food contributes another 13%. “Provision” includes all activities from resource extraction, manufacturing, and transport to final disposal, but excludes use. So the production, transport, and disposal of stuff (“goods” and “food”) contribute 42% to the nation’s GHG inventory. The remainder of the emissions is mostly associated with the use of goods: appliances and devices (8%), building lighting and HVAC (25%), and transportation of people (24%).


The concept of materials management (defined at the top of this page) is introduced in the EPA report as an important approach to addressing GHG emissions associated with goods and food. Strategies that increase the efficient and sustainable use of resources and reduce waste generation throughout the lifecycle of material use can significantly reduce GHG emissions. These strategies include traditional approaches to returning waste to productive use through recycling and composting, strategies that impact product design such as product stewardship, green product standards, and green procurement, and approaches that promote material reuse, extend product lifespans and promote source reduction.

The EPA report referenced above includes only direct emissions released in the U.S. However, many of the products consumed in the US are produced elsewhere. Many of the emissions, including greenhouse gas emissions, from producing those products occur in other countries. A supplemental white paper, Products, Packaging and US Greenhouse Gas Emissions, was written by the lead technical author of the EPA report and released simultaneously by the Product Policy Institute. The white paper shows an even greater impact of goods, or products and packaging. When emissions of products made abroad and consumed here are included, and exports are subtracted, products (including food) and packaging account for 49 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s considerably more than building energy consumption or passenger transportation – the conventional focus of Climate Action Plans.

Benefits of Materials Management Policies and Programs in Climate Action Plans

Materials management policies and programs offer a potent way for governments to reduce GHG emissions:

  • Combined with a “systems-based” method of GHG accounting, materials management allows inclusion of disparate sustainability policies, such as those relating to consumption, waste reduction and urban forestry into a comprehensive view of our climate impacts.
  • Materials management policies and programs can result in communities, counties, and state agencies achieving faster and cheaper progress in reducing GHG than would be made otherwise. When implemented, some of these policies and programs often immediately include all households (or businesses), not just a fraction of the customer base, as found in most energy efficiency programs. Moreover, materials management policies and programs (particularly recycling and composting) are often more directly under the control of communities and jurisdictions than are energy supplies and regional transportation, the focus of most current efforts to reduce GHG emissions (Skumatz 2009).
  • State and local governments have unique leverage to advance product stewardship because of their historical connection and legislative authority to address waste management to protect the public health and the environment. They also have considerable leverage from purchasing power.
  • Increasing reuse, recycling, composting, and new product stewardship initiatives increases local businesses and jobs.

Sustainable Production and Consumption

Materials management can be thought of as a subset of the broader field of "sustainable production and consumption". Broadly put, it addresses the full life cycle of materials - not just the management of "waste" or discards - in the context of sustainability. Both production ("supply") and consumption ("demand") strategies have to be addressed in a coordinated manner to achieve sustainable materials use.

Historically, state and local policies and programs related to materials have focused on the management of discards. Consumers and producers have been invited (and sometimes incented or required) to separate their discards for recycling, and then to use these recyclables in the manufacture of new products. State environmental policies have focused on regulating and reducing pollution from producers (manufacturers). However, history is not destiny. State and local governments are increasingly looking to a broader set of approaches to address the full lifecycle of materials. For example, product stewardship offers a vision of all parties sharing responsibility to reduce environmental impacts across the entire lifecycle. While product stewardship policies in the US have historically focused on collection and management of discards, a re-orientation of policy could lead to more significant benefits in the design and production of products. Rather than focusing on "waste" (and specifically, municipal solid waste), policies could focus on dematerialization and decarbonization - reducing materials use and carbon impacts across the entire life-cycle. Another example involves waste prevention. Finding effective ways to use less material can lead to significant carbon benefits. Some policies are most effectively implemented (or changed) at the national level, and in these cases, state and local governments can advocate for change. In other cases, state and local governments can lead. In all cases, new rules and incentives will be needed to achieve the broad reductions in carbon needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Materials - contributing 42% or more of domestic emissions - can't be left out of the discussion.

Product Stewardship

Product stewardship (better known around the world as extended producer responsibility) assigns responsibility for minimizing a product’s environmental impact throughout all stages of the product’s life to the private chain of commerce (producers, retailers, consumers etc.) and addresses the disconnect between the production of goods in the private sector and management of those goods at end of life by the public sector. For most of the 20th century municipalities assumed responsibility for managing not only organic discards but also discarded products and packaging. The disconnect may be a fundamental driver for the steady increase in disposable products and packaging, which in turn may be part of the reason that national and global environmental burdens from materials extraction, manufacturing, and distribution have increased steadily, hardly affected by downstream solid waste management strategies. There is little incentive to address full environmental costs or to produce durable or reusable products—in fact arguably the opposite. Product stewardship puts responsibility for reducing lifecycle impacts of products back in a market context. In product stewardship, the costs of environmental impacts, and the costs of reducing and mitigating those impacts – including costs of end-of-life management – are paid by producers and consumers, rather than taxpayers, ratepayers and the general public.

Source Reduction and Reuse

Source reduction and reuse strategies offer the highest leverage in reducing GHG impacts of products and packaging. Both the 2009 EPA report and the PPI white paper referenced above show the great contribution of goods and materials to total US GHG emissions. Moreover, it is well established that most GHG impacts occur “upstream” of the consumer, in the production phases. For example, of the 42% of domestic GHG emissions associated with the life cycle (excluding use) of materials (including food), less than 5% (2% of the total US inventory) are believed to be associated with landfills. Hence, it follows that the most effective strategies for reducing GHG emissions associated with products and packaging are those that reduce the need to produce more goods: source reduction and reuse.

Source reduction and reuse strategies have a much higher potential to reduce GHG emissions than “downstream” strategies like recycling and composting. The 2009 EPA report shows that an extremely high level of recycling and composting (nationally, about 95% recycling and composting of municipal solid waste, and about 65% “recovery” of construction and demolition wastes) would only reduce 15% of GHG emissions due to goods and food (15% of the 42% due to goods and food, or 6% of the total US GHG inventory). In contrast, prevention and reuse, and other materials management approaches, such as “low carbon” purchasing and production, have the potential to address all of GHG emissions due to goods and food.

Examples that illustrate the importance of prevention:

Green Building. An analysis commissioned by the Oregon DEQ evaluated different strategies for reducing the climate impact of houses through materials management strategies. Recycling and energy recovery of all building materials over the 70-year life cycle of an average home was shown to reduce lifecycle climate impacts by less than 9%. In contrast, reversing the growth in housing size (an example of waste prevention) has the potential to reduce lifecycle climate impacts by 40%.

Water Delivery. A life cycle analysis commissioned by the Oregon DEQ illustrates the importance of prevention. Using a standard half-liter, single-use PET water bottle, the study illustrates that recycling the water bottle reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 16%, compared to disposing of it (in Oregon). In contrast, drinking water from the tap can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 79 – 98%.

E-Commerce Packaging. A study commissioned by Oregon DEQ, Metro, and the US EPA compares the GHG emissions and other environmental burdens for different methods of delivering non-breakable items to customers in a catalog or e-commerce order fulfillment environment. To the surprise of many, the study shows that shipping bags – even if made from virgin resources and not recycled – have lower environmental burdens in most categories than cardboard boxes with void fills – even if the boxes contain high levels of recycled content. The lower burdens associated with bags are largely a consequence of their lower weight, another example of waste prevention.

Recycling and Composting

From a materials management perspective, GHG production emissions are greater than disposal emissions for most materials, but decreasing waste that is sent to landfills remains an important and valuable GHG emission reductions strategy. Every ton of material that goes into a landfill represents a lost opportunity to reduce emissions from recycling that material. The US EPA reported that in 2008, nearly 170 million tons of material were sent to landfills. If national recycling and composting rates were increased to 50%, an additional 70-80 MMTCO2E/yr would be reduced (EPA, 2009).

Local jurisdictions have historically administered recycling and composting programs. These programs can provide an immediate way to reduce GHG emissions. Many communities are adopting zero waste goals as part of their climate protection portfolio and have committed to improving existing recycling and compost programs. The Forum hosted a webinar in 2008 that provides for people who want to learn more about how recycling and composting can reduce GHG emissions, and some jurisdictions have passed mandatory recycling and composting ordinances.

Recycling and composting can also provide options that are less expensive and more efficient than other GHG reduction strategies. Specifically, recycling has been shown to be cheaper than energy efficiency options and faster to implement. State and local jurisdictions often have the existing authority and infrastructure needed to increase recycling and composting, and have less authority and resources to implement community-scale energy efficiency measures.