Recycling is broken. Can we fix it?

Recycling is broken – say researchers and media. But broken might not be the right word. Recycling is mysterious. It takes more than responsible citizens putting plastic in green bins. Many other products – from aluminum soup cans to golf clubs, from lithium-ion batteries to steel aerospace components – are not only discarded after they have served their purposes, but also require large amounts of energy to be manufactured in first place. In 2021, the US manufacturing sector accounted for 25% of US energy consumption.

“A circular economy is essential,” said Nabil Nasr, CEO of the REMADE Institute, in a press release. REMADE, which was created by the US Department of Energy, funds research to increase recycling and reduce industrial energy consumption. “If we don’t reduce industrial energy use and industrial emissions,” Nasr continued, “research shows we’ll only be just over halfway to net zero by 2050, about 55% of the way.” A circular economy – where used products do not end up in landfills but are reused or turned into new products – is essential to achieving net zero emissions.

REMADE aims to bring about a circular economy – and soon. In December 2021, the institute awarded $33.2 million to 23 new research projects. Three of these 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: Systems Thinking for Materials Management Course: Benefits and Tools

Project Manager: Georgia Institute of Technology
The 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, helps train the next generation of makers and economists, building designers, civil engineers, and more. on the transition to a circular economy.

“Today there is so much talk about decarbonizing energy systems,” Atnoorkar said. “But at some point, we also have to manage the energy demands of making all of our materials.”

Working with the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atnoorkar and his NREL colleagues will design a week-long module for a college-level course on how to take a systems approach to materiel management. The module will introduce students to NREL’s Materials Flow through Industry tool, which models the energy consumed and greenhouse gases emitted throughout the lifetime of a product, from raw material extraction to manufacture, use, reuse and disposal. To illustrate this large and complex process, course designers will present case studies of commonly used metals, such as aluminum, polymers (the building blocks of plastics), packaging fibers and e-waste.

The course will be offered during the fall 2022 semester of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“I hope,” said Atnoorkar, “that we can get more people interested in life cycle assessment, sustainability, sustainable design and a circular economy. I want more people all over the world have access to this knowledge and can apply it to reduce the impacts of different sectors and products.”

REMADE: a technical assessment framework for recycling technologies

Project Manager: University of Michigan
The 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 investing in recycling. The US steel industry produces approximately 70% of new steel from recycled scrap. The plastics industry is starting to make new products from recycled polymers. But there’s a problem: No one collects data on how recycling works or, in many cases, doesn’t work.

Until now.

As part of a large team led by Daniel Cooper at the University of Michigan, NREL researchers are helping to determine how industries, such as steel, aluminum and plastics, as well as individual consumers recycle and reuse products.

“One group can’t take on this whole monster of an analysis,” said Elizabeth Wachs, a postdoctoral fellow at NREL and one of the project’s lead researchers. Over the next two years, the team plans to build a recycling blueprint that lays out how various processes work and identifies the barriers that prevent the United States from building a circular economy.

Take, for example, plastic bags and bottles. How many are recycled? “The problem is that no one knows the exact proportion,” Wachs said. If the number is low, the next step is to figure out why. Is the recycling process too inefficient or expensive? Isn’t recycled material very useful? Although NREL’s role in the project is relatively small, the lab’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 product recycling,” Wachs said. “That could have a big impact.”

REMADE: Design for Re-Solar

Project Manager: University of Pittsburgh
The 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 developing rapidly. This means that many more solar photovoltaic (PV) modules – panels used to generate solar energy – will be made, used and, eventually, disposed of.

“That’s why we need to design a circular economy for photovoltaic materials,” said Garvin Heath, an analyst at NREL’s Center for Strategic Energy Analysis and the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA). “We can recover glass, silicon, aluminum and other materials from modules and reuse or recycle them, which also reduces the need to extract more raw materials. The problem is that we don’t have the data to help us do this intelligently.

NREL Economic Circularand

Circular economy for energy materials

This research aligns with one of NREL’s critical goals.

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 photovoltaic technologies, such as thinner panels or new materials, help (or hurt) efforts to build a circular economy?

Heath and a team of NREL researchers plan to answer these questions using their PV in the Circular Economy (PV_ICE) modeling tool. By anticipating how materials might flow through the photovoltaic industry over the coming decades, this open-source tool can test the impact of different government policies, market trends and technological developments on creating a circular economy. photovoltaic.

“Our goal,” said Silvana Ovaitt, a researcher at NREL who helps lead PV in the circular economy project, “is to empower policymakers and industry members to make informed decisions that could lead to a profitable and equitable circular economy.”

NREL will also carry out a techno-economic analysis of new designs for PV recycling facilities developed by other winners of this project.

Learn more about NREL’s advanced manufacturing research, supply chain analysis, material flow tool across industry, and circular economy vision.

Article published with the kind permission of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy.


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