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OECD surveys sustainable materials management initiatives

28/07/2009

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The OECD has produced an inventory of international initiatives related to development of sustainable materials management as a viable alternative to traditional waste management.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Group on Waste Prevention and Recycling (WGWPR) has published a study into sustainable materials management (SMM) initiatives in OECD countries. As a concept, it views SMM as essential as it exceeds standards of traditional waste management.

Traditional waste management and minimisation policies only address ‘end-of-life’ products and materials; which fail to deal with the increasing amounts of waste produced through economic activity and material consumption. For this reason, SMM, which introduces sustainability and life-cycle perspectives, not only offers increased environmental protection, but also greater economic benefits. These benefits can be both in terms of cost-saving and tax benefits/incentives.

The OECD defines SMM as an approach that includes integrated actions to reduce negative environmental impacts, and that strives to preserve natural capital. Such measures should take into account economic efficiency and social equity throughout the life cycle of materials.

Published in September 2008, the OECD’s inventory of international initiatives set specific criteria when investigating which programmes related to SMM. All initiatives had to take a life-cycle perspective into account; focus on reducing environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of materials and bear a relationship to waste and material policies in general.

Relevance of ETAP and other EU policies

After applying such criteria, 68 initiatives were identified as relating to SMM. Of these, 13 were European Union Directives or initiatives. In particular, the inventory included the EU Thematic Strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources; the Integrated Product Policy and the Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP).

In its assessment of ETAP, the OECD working group found that, in terms of usefulness for SMM, ETAP is not limited to end-of-life technologies, but explicitly aims to reduce negative environmental impacts throughout the life cycle.

The main findings of the inventory showed that relatively few international initiatives are developed for policy making, and that only a few initiatives have led to concrete new policy measures. To this end, there is still a gap in knowledge and experience in terms of how life-cycle thinking can be incorporated into existing international environmental policies.

However, the inventory was carried out only in relation to international initiatives; the case could be different for national programmes. Few national initiatives have grown into international networks – such as Japan’s ‘3R’ (reduce, reuse and recycle) approach and the Chinese Circular Economy. A particularly relevant example of how international actions translate into sustainable practices at the national level is the recently adopted EU Waste Framework Directive. The revised Directive endorses adherence to the waste hierarchy, which must be applied by Member States when developing their national waste policies. This places reduction, reuse and recycling in priority above other forms of waste disposal, such as incineration or landfill.

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