Designing with data creates value, at a rate critical to inform technical and business innovations in materials recovery
Kezi Cheng & Peter Christensen | Mar. 5, 2020
Since the industrial revolution, process and resource optimization have increased manufacturing profitability. Automation has lowered costs by creating and moving more product per unit time. Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing have optimized profitability by reducing time to market, while also enabling hyper-localized, low-volume (customizable) production that reduces both distance and time between producers and consumers. As we continue to advance towards producing optimal quantities at lower costs, higher speeds, with faster delivery times, we should also consider waste output (including end-of-life products) as a critical area for optimizing profitability. Here, we discuss several key factors surrounding material circularity that make it difficult to optimize for profitability. We suggest that in order to close the gap between profitability and maximum materials efficiency, it is necessary to create a careful balance between material demand, material recovery, and product lifetime.
While our discussion generally applies to many materials and products, we will commonly use plastics as a particularly problematic and broad archetypal example. We discuss factors including inferior and inconsistent quality of recycled material, low cost of virgin materials, low and inconsistent supply of recycled material, complicated and costly recovery process and transportation as well as a lack of shared information between stakeholders. Looking to the future, we highlight select recent advances ranging from fundamental academic research to promising startups and commercial developments paving the way to profitability through material circularity. Our discussion is focused around the major components of a circularity ecosystem: economics, research, industry, and policy.
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