Sustainable Materials Management involves creating and encouraging others to form more business ventures and entrepreneurial programs by using materials in a sustainable way.
By John Bradburn

The southern states have developed many industries over the last several years that have benefitted their local communities. However, along with growth comes a need to develop sustainable systems that enable wise use of material resources within an infrastructure that supports the best options for reuse.

Following are various elements that comprise a systems approach for companies to advance wise material usage within a circular economy. This issue is rapidly gaining importance from several standpoints, including the visibility that social media provides to customers and other stakeholders about manufacturers products, operational performance and their commitment to sustainability. This information, along with the traditional factors of cost, quality and regulatory motivators provides another reason to strive to keep materials in their use phase as more people choose products and services on that basis. Company ratings and performance reports are commonplace, and more will follow as instantaneous feedback and transparency mechanisms increase. Customers want to know that the companies they do business with are taking the right steps to improve their communities.

First Element: Low Risk
The first element of a systems approach for wise material usage is to use products that are designed for low risk to human health and the environment. This concept, described by some as green chemistry, considers use phase impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of a product. It includes the design phase, raw material input and processing phase, product use and the end of life dispositioning phase. The stage that is particularly in need of development in many regions, including the South, is the end of life dispositioning phase. Although this last phase should be planned upfront within the design phase, that often does not happen. Including all phases into one’s strategy is the precursor of wise material management and, if done correctly, is what makes a good company great and a wonderful neighbor within their community.

Second Element: Compliance and Reporting
The second element to a systems approach for materials management involves environmental, health and safety (EH&S) regulatory compliance and reporting. These requirements are considered foundational and form the baseline for any company’s performance. It involves a good data collection program and will satisfy many legal requirements but also enables a more advanced understanding of material usage that can lead to targeting special sustainability projects. Several environmental reports that can be affected by material output data: Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs), Biennial Hazardous Waste and annual Air Emissions Inventory. One company that is currently providing this level of service to many OEMs in the South is ERA Environmental Management Solutions, which offers reliable and user-friendly software tools to help businesses quantify their environmental impact and simplify their regulatory reporting.

Third Element: Embrace the Circular Economy
The third element of a wise material management system is to embrace the circular economy. Keeping materials in their use phase is the primary way to minimize resource depletion especially when coupled with material efficiency practices. One system that helps manufacturers find alternative materials to increase circularity is the Materials Marketplace. The program creates a closed loop, collaborative network of businesses, organizations and entrepreneurs where one organization’s hard-to-recycle materials and byproducts become another organization’s raw material. The facilitated database links companies that may not have traditionally worked together in the past, so they can create innovative collaborative projects.

Supply Webs
When companies combine all three elements into their system, further improvement can be achieved by creating supply webs that exponentially grow community infrastructures.

A supply web is similar to a supply chain but is much more resilient. It not only helps keep items in use, but it also creates satellite projects that can benefit communities and the environment. It enables communities to not just keep material in use, but also measure that use by its economic value, societal impact and benefits in line with the communities’ long-term strategic vision.

An example is General Motors and many companies teamed up to implement the Do Your Part initiative, where plastic water bottles from Flint during the lead crisis and GM landfill free operations were processed into fleece. That team included Unifi, W.T. Burnett, Palmetto Synthetics and Rogers Foam, all located in the South. The water bottles were processed into car parts, facility air filters as well as insulation for coats made especially for the homeless. More than a dozen companies rose to this challenge and became involved, each one playing a different but critical role within the web.

While a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, supply webs are dynamic and interconnected—built with additional strength to get tough projects done. By moving a material in different directions, more companies get involved. If one of those businesses fails or bows out, the rest of the initiative continues and adjusts. As other web threads are created, and more products develop, they increase the web’s size and impact, and, ultimately, boost community resilience.

Supply webs are even more resilient when done in cross-sector, collaborative ways. Those working outside their sectors can share ideas and develop new products simply by talking about opportunities and deploying them. Most importantly, these programs create passion within the project team and spark others to become enthusiastic about doing similar projects.

Consider the Stakeholders
For supply webs to have maximum impact, they need to consider all stakeholders nonprofits; government entities; small, medium and large businesses; academia; and concerned citizens. In particular, large corporations should set the tone within their host communities and regions. They, more than any other entity, must lead the way to work closely with their host community stakeholders and support local and regional sustainable development initiatives. Organizations can bring these groups together to address common challenges and opportunities. Some within the South include:

• Arkansas Recycling Coalition (ARC)—Founded in 1989, with more than 300-member companies, they form a diverse sector base that collaborates regularly. They help their communities as well. Virco, an ARC member since its beginning, created a Cash for Cardboard school recycling program in Faulkner County for kids to recycle cardboard. The revenue helps send the kids to space camp, buy books and backpacks. They also have hosted more than 18 professional summits to promote recycling.
• Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association (AAMA)—Works to develop the auto sector base and vigorously promotes sustainability with the OEMs and their suppliers. OEMs with operations in Alabama include Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, with a Mazda Toyota plant now under construction to round out a very strong statewide automotive presence.
• Suppliers Partnership for the Environment (SP)—SP provides a forum for automotive manufacturers, their suppliers, the U.S. EPA and other government entities from around the world to work together to improve sustainability and business value within the automotive supply chain.

Building a Supply Web
Following are four key steps to building a supply web:
1. Do not be satisfied with what you are currently doing. Understand the flow of your materials and the steps involved in processing them. This way, you can better steer their movement and bring sustainability-minded companies together to create material solutions to challenging environmental or societal conditions.
2. Understand all project steps. Act like you are a general contractor, with a need to understand all phases of construction to ensure a solid final product.
3. Think beyond the product’s first life. While developing a project, anticipate and plan for the final product’s second incarnation and how that can grow into other links to further develop local economies and communities.
4. Keep it local. View the current by-product export challenges as an opportunity to grow local infrastructures. Challenge locals to consume the materials they generate for continued economic development and to develop technical resource capability as each processing step increases the material’s value and spurs job growth. Webs can grow in many directions, but distances for material to travel should remain as short as possible.

Sustainable Materials Management involves creating and encouraging others to form more business ventures and entrepreneurial programs by using materials in a sustainable way. I see the rich history of the people in the South who have been very innovative over many generations to accomplish great things and used those skills and resilience to make their industrial processes among the most efficient in the world. It is a perfect time to continue that trend as the importance of growing the circular economy and sustainable development around the world becomes more imperative.

John Bradburn recently retired after 40 years service to General Motors where he served the last 25 as General Motor’s Global Manager of Waste Reduction, which resulted in an industry-leading 152 landfill free operations and the promotion of sustainable materials management. Currently, he is the Chief Materials and Sustainability Officer for Pathway 21 (Austin, TX) and can be reached at

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