Recycling is broken — so say researchers and the media. But broken may be the wrong word. Recycling is mysterious. It requires far more than responsible citizens putting plastics in green bins. Many more products — from aluminum soup cans to golf clubs, lithium-ion batteries to steel aerospace components — not only get trashed after they have served their purposes but also demand high amounts of energy to make in the first place. As of 2021, the U.S. manufacturing sector accounted for 25% of U.S. energy consumption.
“A circular economy is critical,” said Nabil Nasr, the CEO of the REMADE Institute, in a press release. REMADE, which was established by the U.S. Department of Energy, funds research to increase recycling and decrease industrial energy use. “If we don’t reduce industrial energy consumption and industrial emissions,” Nasr continued, “research shows we will only get a little more than halfway to net-zero by 2050, about 55% of the way.” A circular economy — where spent products do not head to landfills but get reused or transformed into new products — is key to achieving net-zero emissions.
REMADE aims to make a circular economy happen — and soon. In December 2021, the institute awarded $33.2 million to 23 new research projects. Three of those teams include advanced manufacturing experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). According to the REMADE Institute, these 23 projects could eliminate carbon emissions equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 5.2 million cars.
For their three projects, NREL researchers will help create a new college-level course, collect better data to understand barriers to recycling, and develop best practices for recycling solar panels:
REMADE: Course on Systems Thinking for Material Management: Benefits and Tools
Project Lead: Georgia Institute of Technology
Partners: Yale University, NREL, GreenBlue, and The Aluminum Association
NREL Principal Investigator: Swaroop Atnoorkar
Swaroop Atnoorkar, a decision support analyst on NREL’s advanced manufacturing team, is helping train the next generation of manufacturers and economists, building designers, civil engineers, and more on how to transition to a circular economy.
“Today, there’s so much talk about decarbonizing energy systems,” Atnoorkar said. “But at some point, we also have to manage the energy demand from manufacturing all our materials.”
Working with the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atnoorkar and her NREL colleagues will design a one-week module for a college-level course on how to take a systems-thinking approach to material management. The module will introduce students to NREL’s Materials Flow through Industry tool, which models the energy consumed and greenhouse gases emitted throughout a product’s lifespan—from raw material extraction through manufacture, use, reuse, and disposal. To illustrate this vast, complex process, the course developers will present case studies on commonly used metals, like aluminum, polymers (the building blocks of plastics), packaging fibers, and electronic waste.
The course will be offered during Georgia Institute of Technology’s fall 2022 semester.
“I hope,” Atnoorkar said, “that we can get more people interested in life-cycle assessment, sustainability, sustainable design, and a circular economy. I want more people everywhere to have access to this knowledge and the ability to apply it to reduce the impacts of different industries and products.”
REMADE: A Technical Evaluation Framework for Recycling Technologies
Project Lead: University of Michigan
Partners: NREL, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Aluminum Institute, Steel Manufacturing Association, and Plastics Industry
NREL Principal Investigators: Liz Wachs and Mark Ruth
Today, many industries …….