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A World without Waste

What is the compelling question or challenge?

The challenge is >90% reduction in waste generated from all sources, including vehicle emissions, consumer waste, and industrial waste.

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

We are awash in waste. Every year the U.S. alone produces 150 million tons of municipal solid waste. In 2015, global emissions of carbon dioxide - the waste product of carbon-based fuel combustion - were estimated to be 36 Gt, and increasing as the developing world industrializes. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area the size of Texas, perhaps larger, that represents the accumulation of decades of plastic waste. However, waste is not a natural consequence. In fact, biological systems show that waste is a matter of perception. When an apex predator kills its prey for food, but what remains after predation is not waste. Instead, it sets off a chain reaction with benefits that trickle through the ecosystem. Scavengers are the first to arrive; followed by microbes which digest what remains after vertebrate scavengers have utilized the carcass; and finally plants that benefit from the nutrients released by the microbes and other animals. The output of one process is the input to the next, until all resources are utilized. The question is one of perception - and prioritization. The key research questions then are as much in the area of social sciences as they are in the physical sciences and engineering. What are the societal hurdles to waste reuse? How do we understand consumer behavior to reduce waste? And yet, the field is bursting with scientific and technology questions, that are ripe for answering. How do we manage nitrogen chemistry more effectively? One hundred years have passed since the invention of the Haber process, and yet still we rely on it for fertilizer. How do we understand microbial consortia in soil chemistry and water treatment, to improve efficiency and reduce runoff and waste? How do photons interact with materials to produce electrons useful for chemical reactions and power generation? How do we harness the reducing capability of carbon dioxide, while converting it into a useful fuel or chemical precursor? Can we design plastics with the properties we need that can be re-used and recycled? Or, can we design chemicals that degrade naturally in the environment? How do we handle big data and complex interacting, systems of systems? Can we understand the science of biopolymers, their synthesis and breakdown? In fact, we are working on all of these questions already, but in different fields and with different techniques. A World without Waste gives them a common motivation, a common problem to solve. Just as the moonshot organized mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers, physicists, medical researchers, and many others, so too will A World without Waste. Our world will never be the same.

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