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Materials Needs for Energy Sustainability by 2050: Enabling a Circular Polymer Bioeconomy: Panel Discussion

Moderator: Ashley White, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


  • Jill Martin, The Dow Chemical Company
  • Megan Robertson, University of Houston
  • Rachel Meidl, Rice University
  • Andreas Lendlein, Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, University of Potsdam

Did you know that the Materials Research Society has a subcommittee for sustainability and that we have been having a sustainability panel for the past six years? Yes! At every MRS meeting, we gather around to discuss different aspects related to sustainability and how it connects to us materials researchers and the broader society. This is one of the most dynamic sessions of the conference with audience members from all around the globe representing academia, national laboratories, and industry.

This time around, our focus was plastics (scientifically, human-made polymers) and how circularity and bioeconomy can help create a more sustainable world of plastics. While we have utilized millions of tons of plastic ever since its invention, we are still very much in a linear economy where plastics are manufactured, used, and discarded with only a small fraction being recycled. We really need to transform such an economy to be more sustainable. The goal of this panel discussion was to discuss where we stand and how we can tackle such a grand and complex problem.

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After Ashley White set the context for the discussion, each of the panelists gave a one-slide pitch about their thoughts on the subject. Rachel Meidl emphasized that beyond the buzzword, sustainability draws from three important pillars—environment, society, and economics—and we cannot optimize individual parts to be more sustainable. Additionally, she advocated that we have to couple sustainability with circular economy and bioeconomy and the three are not necessarily the same. Building on that discussion, Jill Martin pointed out that beyond the materials themselves (plastics in this context), we also have to think about how they are manufactured, processed, and recycled and how polluting is each of those steps. Megan Robertson outlined various chemical engineering-focused research opportunities to enhance plastic sustainability (e.g., catalysis for depolymerization), while Andreas Lendlein sketched the bio angle in this context ranging from biological materials to bio-inspired materials processing.

Following these presentations, the panelists engaged in various interrelated discussions such as “Should we pursue green preparation of materials or green materials or materials with longer lives to curb waste and improve sustainability?”, “Is recycling everything or do we explore multipronged approaches about reduce, reuse, recycle, etc.?” and “What do we do with the existing landfills and other waste sites?”

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The panelists pointed out various common misconceptions and offered scientifically more accurate perspectives, for example,

  • recycling is not a silver bullet;
  • bio does not necessarily mean better;
  • recycling is not the same as circularity, etc.

Multiple disconnects between science and policy were also debated such as “reducing cobalt in lithium-ion batteries disincentivizes recyclers since cobalt is the key economic benefit of battery recycling.” It was surprising to find that across the globe there are more than a hundred active definitions of “circular economy” which not only leads to confusion translating good practices across different societies but often also ends up promoting a practice badly suited to a new community. Moreover, the lack of reliable data or suitable metrics tracking progress toward sustainability adds to the complexity.

When prompted for “what’s the most important thing materials scientists can do differently in their research?”, each of the panelists offered actionable suggestion like getting inspired by nature (Andreas), designing new materials for end-of-life and not just the performance (Megan), focusing on scalable solutions (Jill), and thinking bigger including the societal aspects (Rachel).

This discussion was followed by a number of questions from the audience. The most inspiring part of the entire session was that the panelists constantly offered a positive outlook and emphasized that sustainability is a solvable problem.

Jill concluded the session on a high note saying that “This is one of the best times to be thinking about sustainability. We can’t give up on innovation, especially now!”

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