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 are invested in recycling. The U.S. steel industry produces about 70% of new steel from recycled scraps. The plastics industry is starting to make new products from recycled polymers. But there is a problem: No one is collecting data on how recycling works or, in many cases, does not work.
As part of a large team led by Daniel Cooper at the University of Michigan, NREL researchers are helping chart how industries, like steel, aluminum, and plastics, as well as individual consumers recycle and repurpose products.
“One group can’t take on this whole monster of an analysis,” said Elizabeth Wachs, a postdoctoral researcher at NREL and one of the project’s principal investigators. Over the next two years, the team plans to construct a recycling blueprint that lays out how various processes work and identifies barriers that prevent the United States from building a circular economy.
Take, for example, plastic bags and bottles. How many are getting recycled? “The issue is no one knows the exact proportion,” Wachs said. If the number is low, the next step is to understand why. Is the recycling process too inefficient or costly? Is the recycled material not very useful? While NREL’s role in the project is relatively small, the laboratory’s deep expertise in modeling how materials flow from raw material to product to end of life will help guide the work.
“This is one of the few efforts I’ve seen where they’re trying to help get better data for recycling products,” Wachs said. “It could have a big impact.”
REMADE: Design for Re-Solar
Project Lead: University of Pittsburgh
Partners: NREL, University of California Irvine, First Solar, Aluminum Association, Alfred University, Sunnking Inc., Electronics Recyclers International
NREL Principal Investigators: Garvin Heath and Silvana Ovaitt
Solar energy is growing rapidly. That means far more photovoltaic (PV) solar modules—panels used to generate solar power—will be manufactured, used, and, eventually, disposed.
“That’s why we need to design a circular economy for PV materials,” said Garvin Heath, an analyst with NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center and the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA). “We can recapture the glass, silicon, aluminum, and other module materials and reuse or recycle them, which also reduces the need to extract more raw materials. The problem is we don’t have the data to help us do that in a smart way.”
Circular Economy for Energy Materials
This research aligns with one of NREL’s critical objectives.
Is it more sustainable, for example, to build more durable modules that last longer? Or are shorter-lived, fully recyclable modules more environmentally friendly? How could new PV technologies, like thinner panels or novel materials, help (or hurt) efforts to build a circular economy?
Heath and a team of NREL researchers plan to answer these questions with help from their modeling tool PV in the Circular Economy (PV_ICE). By anticipating how materials might flow through the PV industry over the next several decades, this open-source tool can test how different government policies, market trends, and technological developments could impact the creation of a PV circular economy.
“Our goal,” said Silvana Ovaitt, a researcher at NREL who is helping lead the PV in the Circular Economy project, “is to allow policymakers and industry members to make informed decisions that could lead to a cost-effective and equitable circular economy.”
NREL also will conduct techno-economic analysis of new PV recycling facility designs that are developed by other awardees in this project.
Learn more about NREL’s advanced manufacturing research, supply chain analysis, the Materials Flows through Industry tool, and vision for the circular economy.