The rapid evolution of society’s current linear waste management systems to one that is circular, is critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce extraction of raw materials from nature. A new initiative to promote sustainable waste management practices, SWEEP, or the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Performance Standard, can transform the 20th-century garbage-centered waste system into a sustainable and circular economy that keeps materials in constant use.
SWEEP is designed on the principles and success of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a standards program that led to the widespread adoption of green building design. SWEEP is the benchmark for sustainable materials practices, going beyond waste disposal to help communities and companies meticulously assess all the factors that shape the waste lifecycle. As with LEED, participating organizations can earn points toward a public rating by embracing new practices. The SWEEP process introduces proactive waste prevention and efficient and sustainable recycling methods, improves the health and safety of workers, delivers robust community engagement and information, and creates sound financial systems. Earth911 recently joined the SWEEP community.
Great ecological benefits can be realized when waste is handled sustainably. As The Ellen MacArthur Foundation wrote in a recent white paper:
“[T]o date, efforts to tackle the crisis have focused on a transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. Though crucial… [energy efficiency] measures [alone] can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day. These cannot be overlooked. The circular economy can contribute to completing the picture of emissions reduction by transforming the way we make and use products.”
By adopting sustainable waste management practices and promoting responsible consumption, we can mitigate the impact of solid waste on climate change and work towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
A clear, standardized framework for discussing waste can encourage dialogue that accelerates progress. The common language SWEEP provides is a tool for sharing information among municipalities, waste service providers, and companies working to reduce their environmental impact. Using SWEEP’s guidelines, organizations can ensure that their waste management strategies are environmentally sustainable and economically viable. That’s a firm foundation for a future where waste is viewed not as a problem to be disposed of but as a resource with potential for recovery and reuse.
What is Sustainable Materials Management?
Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is a term coined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 as a policy framework to approach using and reusing resources productively and sustainably throughout their entire life cycles. It challenges the linear economy’s “take-make-use-throw away” approach to material consumption, instead considering every aspect of material use, from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal. The goal is more than reducing waste; it encourages organizations to minimize environmental impacts and conserve resources.
In a SWEEP-based waste management program, discarded products can be returned to a like-new condition through repair and refurbishment, extending their life and reducing the need for new manufacturing. Because it emphasizes the entire lifecycle of materials, SMM aligns closely with the principles of a circular economy. The sustainable way forward for our economy must include products designed to last, be easy to repair, and recycle or compost when no more use is possible.
SWEEP Points Count
Despite recycling being at the center of the environmental canon for the last 40 years and various solid waste trade associations claiming to want to standardize it, the process needs to be faster.
The 90,000 local governments and special districts that make up the United States waste management system operate almost 1000 different types of recycling programs and systems. Materials collected need to be consistently defined. With standard definitions of materials, organizing markets for recyclables is manageable. Consider what is recyclable in your bin and compare it with a nearby community. Too often, material accepted by one community cannot be placed in bins managed by the next town. Take bottle caps, for example; in roughly half the nation, recycling programs ask citizens to leave the caps on, but right down the road, the rules suggest taking the caps off because they use different processing equipment.
Enter the SWEEP Standard. Founded in 2016 by Rob Watson, who previously developed the LEED building rating system, SWEEP has gathered hundreds of industry professionals and experts to work out a consistent language and set of recycling rules. However, the real impact of that common language will be accomplished by measuring and rewarding waste management programs based on their performance.
As the management thinker Peter Drucker wrote, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” SWEEP provides the tools to measure the efficiency and environmental impact of America’s recycling industry. As organizations work to earn SWEEP certification, their collective progress can propel the nation’s waste management system in a new direction toward realizing the circular economy.
Measurement is the engine of progress. Like LEED, which offers four levels of certification based on points earned by choosing sustainable building materials and practices, the SWEEP Standard challenges organizations to earn credits and score points across five critical performance categories. They must document and report their progress to earn points, which generates more information that can be shared to improve industry practices.
Understanding The SWEEP Certification Levels
Organizations go through SWEEP’s verification and review process, receiving points that correspond to a level of SWEEP certification. The credits are designed to address all the impacts a waste management operation has on the environment and the communities where it does business.
SWEEP introduces a reliable third-party certification process for public and private solid waste management organizations. Traditionally, recycling programs and landfills have relied on self-reported first-party and second-party industry association certifications. Third-party certifications provide independent, unbiased verification. The SWEEP scoring system was developed by industry experts, ensuring comprehensive standards and best practices that go beyond minimum regulatory requirements.
To become SWEEP Certified at the minimum level, a local government or SMM service provider must fulfill all the prerequisites and earn at least 50 of the 100 available points. Following certification, recycling programs can climb the ladder toward the highest efficiency, transparency, and environmental performance, following a scale similar to the LEED model: Silver requires 60-69 points, Gold between 70 and 79 points, and Platinum level certification is awarded to organizations with 80 or more points.
Benefits, Costs, and Improved Outcomes
Although third-party certifications involve fees and operational changes, their benefits make them a worthwhile investment. For example, organizations certified by SWEEP can expect immediate cost savings from energy efficiency improvements, better collection efficiency, and lower labor costs. Certification of a circular and sustainable business operation attracts young professionals looking for meaningful, nature-positive careers.
Municipalities that undergo the certification process can achieve 25% higher diversion rates, with reduced contamination that improves recycling yields, as well as savings realized from paying less for material to landfills. The ancillary benefits include retaining more employees because of improved worker safety, fewer illnesses in the community due to reduced carbon emissions, less traffic on the streets, and fewer environmental impacts caused by collection fleets whose routes and fuel economy have been optimized.
The most important outcome of independent, third-party SWEEP certification is improved credibility, transparency, and accountability. Certification sends a clear message to constituents and customers that an organization is a leader in sustainability. Two-thirds of citizens say government and companies must act sustainably, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
Driving Sweeping Change In Your Community
Citizens, as community members and as customers of waste management services, can drive the adoption of sustainable, circular SMM practices. Urge your municipal waste management and recycling programs to become SWEEP certified, and start asking any private haulers you deal with to show their commitment with transparency based on regular reporting about recovery rates, costs, and where materials ultimately went – to a processor or the landfill.
Too often, citizens have been told to take the word of a first- or second-party reviewer with a conflict of interest. Ask your city council and solid waste management office to step up to third-party certification, a report you and they can trust to enable a productive dialogue about potential improvement. Attending a public meeting can be fun and makes a real difference when your representatives vote.
A SWEEP certification demonstrates that a circular, closed-loop economy is possible in your community. Because more material and, consequently, more revenue stays in a regional circular economy, the investment can lead to new jobs, healthier workplaces, and a more sustainable future.