Engineering the Elimination of End-of-life Plastics (E3P) requires technological advances to maximize recycling and recovery, behavioral understanding to influence consumer attitudes, and economic approaches to incentivize extension of product life. Each alternative involves trade-offs in its social acceptability, economic feasibility, environmental sustainability, and circularity. For example, biodegradable plastics may seem to be most desirable if they decompose to become biological nutrients. However, if these materials have a large life cycle environmental impact, their adoption will not eliminate the end-of-life, but simply shift the environmental burden along the life cycle. Solutions for E3P need to be sustainable by being environmentally benign, economically feasible, and socially desirable. The overall goal of this project is to develop holistic and systematic methods and tools for assessment, design, and innovation toward Sustainable and Circular E3P (SCE3P).
The research team will conduct synergistic research in polymer chemistry, reaction engineering, and molecular simulation to determine properties of depolymerization and valorization processes under practical conditions of contamination; process design to model the cost and physical flows of current and emerging technologies; supply network modeling to determine the effects on the wider chemical industry; behavioral studies to discern and influence the role of consumers; and life cycle and circularity assessment to estimate environmental effects across global value chains. The resulting framework will consider the entire plastics life cycle, including thousands of combinations of alternatives at each step to select the 'best' pathway. This framework will be able to assess existing products, design new products and pathways, and encourage innovation toward SCE3P. The framework will be useful for all types of plastics, but the project's experimental focus will be on polystyrene (PS) and poly(ethylene terepthalate) (PET) due to their large market. The SCE3P framework will be applied in the project to plastic products in the food service industry, with case studies done in collaboration with industry consortia and other stakeholders. The project is formulated to contribute to the convergence of chemical engineering, sustainable engineering, and behavioral science, for assessment, design, and innovation toward a sustainable and circular economy of plastics. A target is to develop new knowledge about the chemistry and engineering of various depolymerization and valorization approaches for PS and PET products. The research team will also bring together knowledge about steps in the plastics life cycle to contribute to an innovation roadmap for SCE3P. A spatial model of the U.S. chemical industry will be extended by including the plastics industry and emerging technologies for SCE3P. Behavioral studies will improve the understanding of spillover effects of other decisions on choice of plastic products and their responsible disposal. New data and methods will be developed for assessing and designing circular systems, evaluating their resilience, and identifying hotspots to focus innovation. Application to food services will guide progress toward goals of zero waste and carbon neutrality. The outcome of this project is to be a software prototype of the SCE3P framework, which will be disseminated widely via a university-based website, webinars to industry and other stakeholders, and university courses. Collaborators will provide access to over a hundred companies across the world. The team will develop teaching modules related to the research for inclusion in university courses and high school engineering curricula through the Engineer Your World program which reaches over 10,000 diverse high school students across the U.S.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
|Effective start/end date
|10/1/20 → 9/30/24
- National Science Foundation: $2,000,000.00