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Research Project

GCR: Collaborative Research: Convergence Around the Circular Economy

Principal Investigator
Theis, Thomas L
Start Date
End Date
Funding Source
National Science Foundation


The objectives of this Growing Convergence Research project are to advance understanding of circular economies and to explore boundary-spanning solutions to the complex resource and waste challenges facing society today. The consumption of disposable consumer products drives many environmental challenges, including waste and pollution streams with global impact. A circular economy aims to decouple economic growth from resource consumption and waste by cycling products and materials back into production. A convergence team of engineers, economists, anthropologists, and environmental assessment experts will work to develop the knowledge needed to achieve circular economies by closing and slowing resource loops. To address closing resource loops, the research team will examine the technical and scientific challenges of how to formulate, produce, and use material resources to reduce consumption and environmental impact while also creating new ways to sustainably cycle these resources back into use at end-of-life. Plastic products serve as a key case study, with an emphasis on molecularly-designed products for disassembly and reuse. The project includes research on a recyclable thermoset composite system which can be "uncured," separated, and collected for reuse. A general equilibrium behavioral-economic model that incorporates insights from psychology and anthropology and considers non-optimizing, highly-socialized behaviors will be used to consider associated economic, business, and environmental factors. To address slowing resource loops, the researchers will focus on design standardization and new business models to extend product value. They will also explore the integration and development of blockchain for asset and material tracking. The creation of knowledge with stakeholder input will inform innovative technical and science-based advances, engagement approaches, and novel business models. Using Complexity Leadership Theory and network analysis, members of the project will study convergence research in action and design interventions to strengthen connections within the research team. 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.