Waste Not, Want Not: The ‘Circular Economy’ Gives NIST New Opportunities to Help Create a More Environmentally Sound Future

Waste Not, Want Not: The ‘Circular Economy’ Gives NIST New Opportunities to Help Create a More Environmentally Sound Future

Kate Beers

When I started college, I thought I was going to study foreign relations and languages. In my imagination, adult Kate was going to live a glamorous life of international travel, living in foreign cities and participating in important discussions solving global problems.

As a student, I became almost compulsive about “zero-waste” living more than a decade before that became a “thing,” as my awareness of the relationship between my lifestyle and my personal, lasting impacts on the world became more real (in finally taking out my own trash, for example).

Ultimately, I became a chemistry major (because of great teachers and a natural inclination to math and science), then ended up studying polymers in graduate school. Polymers are very large molecules and the main ingredient in most plastics, as well as many other modern materials. I knew polymer people graduated faster and got good jobs. I was impressed with the practical value of polymers — they are inexpensive to make, with an extraordinary range of properties and functions — and they are a component of almost everything modern Americans touch in their daily lives. 

As I embarked on this field of study, I became acutely aware, even then, of the glaring problem this class of materials would eventually present. They were dramatically overengineered for their highest volume applications. The “linear” business model, in which we extract resources (fossil fuels in this case), use stuff made from them and “throw them away” (i.e., move them somewhere where we don’t see them and feel we can forget about them), was clearly unsustainable, generating what I knew had to be extraordinary volumes of waste that could only stay out of sight for so long.

During the early parts of my NIST career, we tried a few times to build support for investment in NIST research on “sustainability,” particularly to help address the pending issues in waste management and environmental impacts of polymer manufacturing, but it was always a struggle to explain what sustainability really meant. It’s often conflated with concepts and terms like restoring nature or sustainable business models (which is something entirely different). The vague, subjective nature of the topic quickly doomed our efforts at initiating a broader conversation. Maybe there were timing challenges, too, but I think the term just wasn’t quantifiable enough for the NIST culture.

About five years ago, that conversation changed. The term “circular economy” was gaining in popularity, largely due to efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to galvanize the private sector in collective action around the growing problems with a linear, “throwaway” economy for plastic products. The foundation defined the circular economy as one that “transforms our throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated and nature is regenerated.” The foundation’s definition is very powerful at an aspirational level, and is now being adopted into legislation (e.g., Save Our Seas 2.0), but it was still softer and a bit vague for a NIST-actionable program.

However, tying these concepts, which we have associated with sustainability or green technologies, to an economic transformation did attract our attention. Suddenly, there was a clear and strong connection to NIST mission and expertise. So we presented our own definition for our role in the circular economy: “Keeping atoms and molecules inside the economy, producing value, and out of unwanted sinks such as the environment.” 

How do we go from a throwaway economy to one where we minimize waste, prevent greenhouse gas emissions, and keep resources in the economy for as long as possible? With a circular economy. Learn more in this animation. For more information go to: https://www.nist.gov/circular-economy

When we consider our supply chain and manufacturing processes at the molecular level and make a commitment to keeping as many of those molecules as possible inside our own systems (whether those are traditional manufacturing, or agricultural and biological manufacturing systems), it really doesn’t matter what value they hold in a particular application, as long as there is a pathway and incentive for them to reenter the system and not be “thrown away” at the end of a particular application or use. The NIST definition also includes the losses and inefficiencies at every stage of the economy (carbon dioxide and methane are molecules, too) so that maximum conservation and containment of our resources within our systems takes a more holistic approach.

Our program should enable technological solutions that can be scaled up from individual molecules to entire industries across the whole supply chain. We want these solutions to inform smart public policy and lead to data-driven decisions. To assess whether these solutions are effective, we will need to continually make and share measurements and methods for evaluating their impacts.

Our definition was meant to be bold, risky, complex, yet measurable, and to appeal to many people across NIST, who could contribute their own perspectives on what solutions could or should look like.

The primary investment in NIST’s Circular Economy Program started by looking at plastics and polymers. The work in this space is generally organized around three pillars: materials science, data and decision tools, and environmental impacts assessment. There has been some early success: three workshops, a report to Congress, and really cool research and measurement methods published in all three pillars.  

For example, a multidisciplinary team at NIST is working on better models and tools for predicting compatibilization of polymer blends. Why is that important? Because not all plastics are the same, and they don’t all blend together well during recycling. Making different polymer types more compatible with one another (mixable at very small scales) represents an opportunity to improve recycling so that the recycled plastics will be more valuable.

In the area of data and decision tools, NIST recently published a review of the state of lifecycle assessments for plastics. Lifecycle assessments traditionally allow one business in the supply chain to look at its practices and the practices of its suppliers and customers (sometimes even once or twice removed) to evaluate the environmental impacts of its business and look for ways to improve. In the future, better data and methods that can move along the entire cycle for a product are critically important to improving outcomes of its full lifecycle in a circular economy. This review is an important first step. 

Finally, in environmental impact assessment, the Center for Marine Debris Research at Hawai’i Pacific University, which is co-directed by NIST, has made tremendous progress in analyzing plastic marine pollution, including working collaboratively with the state to identify where there may be opportunities to reuse and repurpose these materials.

We’re also identifying needs NIST can address in high-tech (electronic, solar and battery) waste, textiles, cement and, hopefully, food waste, coming soon. 

Our efforts are not happening in a vacuum. We are working with individuals in other federal and state government agencies, as well as individuals in academia and the private sector. Because of that, a lot of my time is spent in discussions with other agencies, on interagency working groups and in collaborative efforts with the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, other members of the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just to name a few. We’ve reached out to states, and in some cases municipalities, while also informing international negotiations in multiple settings including the U.N. and international economic summits such as G-7, G-20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). I am constantly impressed with the abilities of our colleagues in other agencies, especially the State Department. It’s been especially fun for the 18-year-old inside me to get a little exposure to the international relations space.

The circular economy is simultaneously a local and global problem.

This is about our economy, our quality of life and our economic security, and the needs for basic measurements, standards and data are profound and pervasive. We’ve been working hard for a few years now, but this is only the beginning. A perfect circular system may not be strictly possible (we will always be fighting entropy after all), but transitioning to a culture of constant improvement toward this goal, and supporting technology, innovation and systems that enable it, is the only path forward to a future where we can simultaneously preserve the planet and expand prosperity, health and security for everyone.

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