Design for Circular Economy from Molecules to the Built Environment Workshop

A Workshop to create a research agenda while fostering and catalyzing circular economy design in the US, from molecules to the built environment.

For the final workshop report, please follow this link.


Circular economy (CE) aims to decouple economic growth from resource consumption by cycling products and materials back into production, either by returning materials to generate new products, or by releasing benign substances to the environment through degradation. A truly circular economy keeps material in continuous use by design. The overall adoption of CE principles has been incremental at best ā€“ especially in the US. To achieve ā€“ or even begin to achieve ā€“ a circular economy, a convergent research approach needs to be employed as a multitude of disciplines — from material science, chemistry, biology, engineering, business, economics, social sciences, and behavioral sciences need to work in concert for circularity. Thus we invited experts across disciplines to be a part of this journey. By deeply integrating these diverse disciplines, we can begin to work on tackling the complex challenges that currently inhibit the growth of the circular economy today.

The US lags far behind in CE design research and policy formulation in comparison with our UK, EU, and Asian colleagues, and our plan was to include a retrospective/lessons learned session from policy makers to inform the research community. A key outcome was to learn where current policies create barriers to wider implementation of circular concepts. It is noteworthy that the emerging CE-based studies resemble many of the same conversations that occurred in the biomass conversion community starting in the early 2000s. Given the successes and failures of the biofuels and bioproducts community, we proposed to include some aspects of learning from this community related to scale-up, development of rigorous standards and protocols to enable comparisons of various design and reuse strategies, and the need for early and comprehensive analyses for sustainability and supply chains.

Date and Location

The event was held online and took place on September 18th, 24th and 30th of 2020.

We asked attendees to perform some pre-work and light background reading/viewing prior to the sessions.

Who Attended

Our stakeholder community includes the research/academic community, government, industry, non-profits, foundations, and international partners. We struck a balance between breadth and depth. A key point of the workshop was to understand how all of these groups work together and eventually converge on solutions. Attendees represented a variety of sectors:

  • Academic community
  • Professional societies
  • Non-profits and Foundations
  • International considerations
  • Governmental entities
  • Industry stakeholders
  • Individual companies
  • Investment and incubation

We are most interested in new, innovative ideas and original thinking that arise from new collaborations between people of diverse backgrounds and varying expertise.

All participants were willing to engage in frank disclosure and assessment of ideas in a collegial and professional fashion. To facilitate open sharing, all meeting discussions were considered private communication and were not and will not be shared outside of the meeting, unless approved by the contributor. All research-related application information is kept confidential.

The Organizing Committee

  • Melissa Bilec (PI), University of Pittsburgh
  • Gregg Beckham (Co-PI), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
  • Eric Beckman (Co-PI), University of Pittsburgh
  • Jenna Jambeck (Co-PI), University of Georgia
  • Jason Locklin (Co-PI), University of Georgia
  • Gemma Jiang (SP), University of Pittsburgh
  • Fernanda Cruz Rios, University of Pittsburgh

Meeting Outcomes

  • Create a research agenda and the mission components in support of a new track for the NSF Convergence Accelerator program.
  • Develop a circular economy community in the US.

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