Closing Resource Loops

Closing resource loops involves either creating products and components that can be easily and safely absorbed by the biosphere, or creating items that while they cannot be released to the ecosystem, can be easily recycled to high-value uses. As such, closing loops involves (a) Design for a biological cycle, (b) Design for a technological cycle, (c) Design for disassembly and reassembly. 

We address closing resource loops and design for disassembly by addressing the technical and scientific challenge of how we formulate, produce, and use material resources to reduce consumption and its environmental impact while also creating new ways to cycle these resources back into use at end-of-life, while considering the environmental impacts.  Plastic products are a key case study, with an emphasis on molecularly-designed products for disassembly, and reuse, while also considering associated economic, business, and environmental drivers and barriers, via the new general equilibrium behavioral-economic model that incorporates insights from psychology and anthropology and consider non-optimizing, highly socialized behavior. We address the societal challenge of global plastic waste. 

We are specifically focusing our technical challenge on thermosets: co-PI Eric Beckman is working to create an inherently recyclable thermoset composite system. Thermosets can be polymers, plastics, and/or resins hardened by curing.  Thermosets produce intractable products that cannot be reprocessed, nor can the individual components be separated for reuse. Thus, this significant market ends up as waste.  Thermosets span many household products such as polyurethane (e.g., shoe soles and foams) and melamine resins (e.g., hard surfaces), to industrial products that include windmill blades or aerospace designs. In the built environment, thermosets are often found in insulation systems, adhesives, coatings and paints, and fiber composites.  We aim to investigate this product from the molecule to the product to the sector (see figure below).

While we are focusing on plastic reformulations, many of these same ideas can be applied across products and sectors, including other products in the construction sector.

While it might be assumed that circular designs are more sustainable than their throw-away analogs, this is not necessarily true. There is a need to adopt life cycle environmental analysis to products that are designed to move in loops. However, even with established standards, LCA application to emerging circular systems faces key uncertainties, including challenges of modeling multiple life cycles, changing product functionality, and integrating disparate data sources associated with new materials, products, and systems. Solving these challenges requires methodological innovations in LCA to account for rapidly evolving product systems under data uncertainty. We are leading research to further develop and apply a Dynamic LCA (DLCA) framework that specifically applies to evaluating CE solutions. A specific case will be to connect interacting models of buildings and the construction sector ) and the polymer-based materials that are used in construction.

We are using LCA to guide the design process with iterative feedback loops (design-evaluate-redesign-re-evaluate) that will inform sustainable and circular economy decision-making to preclude future realization of unintended consequences of CE designs.

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