Currently there are two types of material flows that occur in society, linear and a limited amount of reuse and recycling. An aspiration is to have closed loop material flows that underpin a circular economy by keeping the matter making up materials in use as products longer and maximizing matter’s regeneration into high-value products at the product’s end of life. The basic elements of a circular economy are to: prioritize regenerative resources, design for the future, preserve and extend what’s already made, rethink the business models, use waste as a resource, incorporate digital technology, and collaborate to create joint value. This is a complex challenge that demands a multidisciplinary approach combining fundamental science and engineering to create the necessary materials and technologies to underpin circular systems but also policy and economics to enable society to make the transition to a circular economy.
There are initiatives across the Globe to advance the circular economy including reports and funding from the European Commission, China’s eco-parks and within US funding opportunities from agencies like NSF, DOE; and foundations, such as the Ellen G. MacArthur Foundation, and other organizations (ThinkBeyondPlastics, Ubuntoo) that support replacement of plastics with sustainable alternatives. For example, the MacArthur Foundation supports the New Plastics Economy accelerator (https://www.newplasticseconomy.org/) which has engaged over 1000 companies and organizations as signatories to a Global Commitment to circular plastics.
RBI’s “Circular Materials” focuses on polymer-based materials, including composites, with the ultimate goal of identifying materials and/or processes that can minimize the use of non-sustainable resources (fossil fuels) as feedstocks or energy sources. That includes:
- Recycling at the molecular level, for example molecular restoration or regeneration, which is very common in nature, through such processes as mechano-catalysis, separations, electro-catalysis, etc.;
- Replacing the functionality provided by petroleum-based polymers with polymers from biomass. Optimized biomass processing to synthesize common monomeric building blocks and/or new ones through approaches as redesign of products, processes, policies, economies and workforce education.
- Reducing the energy input and other resources i.e., water, materials and transportation costs, minimizing waste streams e.t.c., in current manufacturing processes of products made using petroleum-based feedstocks.
For more information on RBI’s initiatives on Circular Materials and how to get involved, please contact:
Rae S. and Frank H. Neely Professor, School of Mechanical Engineering; Strategic Coordinator for Circular Materials, Renewable Bioproducts Institute