We Can Do Better Than Make It, Use It, Throw It Away

New Prize Calls for Applicants To Enable Circular Supply Chains By Reimagining Ways To Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, or Repurpose Goods

Nov. 27, 2023 | Contact media relations

Before a product can be used by consumers, it first has to be created, right? Manufacturing all the goods that we use consumes energy and emits greenhouse gases. But that consumption and emission does not end there. Once the consumer is done with the product and it reaches the end of its first life, it could end up in a landfill (which takes up land), get incinerated (which emits harmful gases), or be recycled (which requires more energy).

“By and large, the consumer goods that we manufacture end up in a landfill or being incinerated,” said Kate Peretti, the Secure and Sustainable Materials program manager in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO). “And the impacts from those end-of-life scenarios disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Keeping the materials and the products circulating longer has enormous potential to help decarbonize the entire economy and create robust, domestic supply chains.”

Although recycling does demand less energy than digging up brand-new materials from the ground, there is an even better option. If a product or part can stay useful beyond its original lifespan, that could delay the need to recycle those materials. With a circular economy, in which goods retain their value and minimize harmful impacts, the country could take a huge step closer to achieving a sustainable, equitable, net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.

Now, AMMTO is launching a new prize, called the American-Made Re-X Before Recycling Prize, to transform linear supply chains—the traditional model in which we make a thing, use it, and throw it away—into circular ones. Re-X stands for all the many ways processes can transform a product, be it reuse, repurpose, repair, refurbish, or remanufacture.

“Recycling is really important,” Peretti said. “Other Re-X pathways, like reuse, repair, and repurposing, can give us even more value for the goods we produce before they get recycled.”

A series of embedded pathways show alternatives to recycling, including “Recover”, “Reuse”, “Repair”, and “Remanufacture.”
The Re-X Before Recycling Prize seeks innovations to unlock new or expanded supply chains that can reintegrate end-of-use products into the economy via reuse, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and/or repurposing (all of which fall within the term “Re-X”) before recycling. Graphic by John Frenzl, NREL

The prize, which offers $4.5 million in cash prizes and $1.1 million in technical assistance, intends to boost the creation of local jobs and environmental benefits to serve three large national goals: creating resilient supply chains, decarbonizing our economy by 2050, and ensuring environmental and economic benefits equitably serve disadvantaged communities.

Through three prize phases—Identify!, Prepare!, and Develop!—eligible teams will compete to design new ways to reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, and/or repurpose goods to give them multiple lives.

Administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the prize will reward selected competitors up to $700,000 in cash and $105,000 in technical assistance from national laboratory experts, who will help teams analyze and maximize their ideas’ potential environmental and economic impacts. The application deadline for the first phase of this prize will be March 12, 2024.

The prize also requires applicants to identify the benefits their idea could bring to communities and develop strong community partnerships. Supply chains are called chains for a reason; they are built from many links, including multiple businesses. To establish new circular chains, collaborations among businesses, communities, and nonprofits are crucial.

“That’s why the prize focuses on local supply chains and enables participants to learn from one another,” Peretti said.

“Trash is local, and reprocessing rather than burying it generates potential for economic activity,” Peretti added. New supply chains dedicated to reuse, recovery, or another Re-X help create local jobs and boost environmental benefits.

Prize competitors can choose to tackle either current or emerging waste streams. Right now, for example, Americans throw away many electrical devices, furnishings, consumer goods, and building materials after one use. In the future, the country will likely produce far more clean-energy technologies, like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, that could also be repaired or remanufactured so they can produce clean energy longer while helping to decarbonize U.S. supply chains, too.

Changing from a linear to a circular economy is not easy. People who own a product must choose to return it rather than trash it; then, somebody else must want that product enough to buy it. The onus to recover products should not only fall on the consumer either. Businesses can play a role, too. As the product creators, they could help identify solutions to extend the lives of their goods. Consumers, businesses, cities—really everyone can do something to support the United States’ transition to a circular economy.

That is why the prize is open to a wide range of competitors, including for-profit companies that manufacture products and also individuals, teams of individuals, nonprofits, and nonfederal government entities, such as those at state, county, tribal, and municipality levels and academic institutions—or collaborative groups that combine these competitor types.

AMMTO is looking for bold proposals, ones that could have a big impact for communities and our country, and hopes the Re-X Before Recycling Prize will attract a wide range of applicants and ideas. Prizes are designed to encourage new and diverse applicants to apply for federal funding. Potential applicants could identify opportunities that the U.S. Department of Energy has yet to encounter.

If that is you, Peretti said, “find some partners, and tell us, ‘We see a problem. Here’s how we can do this better.’”

Got a big idea to help your community repurpose valuable goods? Learn more about how to apply for the Re-X Before Recycling Prize.

Tags: Circular Economy,Manufacturing,Materials Science