The Role of the Circular Materials Economy
Written by Ashley A. White
Is recycling always the best option? Is our quest to invent new materials and more complex products at odds with achieving energy sustainability? These were some of the tough questions posed to panelists on Tuesday evening’s session on “Materials Needs for Energy Sustainability by 2050: The Role of the Circular Materials Economy,” which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and co-organized by the MRS Energy & Sustainability journal’s editorial board and the MRS Focus on Sustainability subcommittee.
Jonathan Cullen of the University of Cambridge, and a member of MRS’s Focus on Sustainability subcommittee, moderated the discussion, which centered on the idea that sustainable development depends on our ability to increase materials efficiency by closing product life cycle loops. Instead of a model of “make, use, dispose,” the circular economy promotes sustainable sourcing of raw materials, long-lasting product design, maintenance, and repair, and recycling or reusing materials at the end of a product’s initial lifespan.
Carolyn Duran (Intel Corporation), Thomas Graedel (Yale University), Linda Gaines (Argonne National Laboratory), and Stanley Whittingham (Binghamton University) served as panelists. Much of the discussion focused around familiar product examples, including mobile phones, cars, and beverage containers. The audience of approximately 250 attendees was brought into the conversation by the use of an online polling system. Before panelists discussed a topic, the audience shared their perceptions by answering multiple choice questions. The results were displayed live and served as input to the discussion.
A surprising example to many was Gaines’s assertion that it may be better to direct glass bottles to a landfill rather than to recycle them, once one considers such factors as the availability of silica and the weight of a glass bottle and energy it takes to transport it to a recycling facility. Of course the best solution, she noted, would be to reuse a bottle.
Graedel pointed to the importance of scientists understanding how their research will be applied. In teaching his industrial design courses, he takes students to factories to see large-scale manufacturing first hand and asks them to consider how they might design a process to be more efficient.
Another discussion topic was designing products from the beginning with recycling in mind. One challenge with many modern electronic devices is that manufacturing processes often combine elements in such a way (e.g., through layer-by-layer deposition) that it’s challenging to separate them post-use for recovery and recycling.
The panelists also spoke to the role of cultural shifts in driving sustainable solutions. Broader societal moves toward service models (e.g., car sharing programs vs. individual ownership of automobiles), product reuse, or purchasing longer-lasting items have the potential to change economic incentives. At the same time, cultural shifts already occurring, particularly in the younger generation, are driving newly graduating students to be more choosy in selecting employers who value sustainability, Duran noted.