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Repurposing, Recycling, Renewable Energy

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Can we do better with our existing waste? How can we create new recyclable materials and create infrastructures for the repurposing of currently environmentally costly resources?

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

While there is a wealth of research and data demonstrating how creating sustainable infrastructures and recycling is beneficial to the climate, our economy, and our society, the basic research needs required to eliminate our waste problem are unmet. Often catastrophic environmental problems do not develop out of a singular event, but rather out of sustained and habitual usage of some resource (e.g. water scarcity or overfishing) or willful ignorance (e.g. recycling). However, it is not until catastrophe is imminent as a result of those poor habits that humans react. For example, the water crisis and the rationing of resources in preparation for "Day 0" in Cape Town. It was not until under these near-death conditions that our society put restrictions its own nature by forcing ourselves to ration water and was able to prolong an almost inevitable catastrophic event indefinitely. Our practice of waste disposal and recycling inefficiencies are of the same nature. If preparative actions are not taken, we and our environment (i.e. our food and water supply), will pay a heavy, if not insurmountable, cost.

In brief, this Big Idea appears as a three-pronged approach with big questions centered around Recycling, Repurposing, & Restructuring for Sustainability: first, dealing with what we have (i.e. how do we process current waste to reverse our impact on the environment), second, developing new materials that are based on recyclable strategies, and, finally, education for future generations to appreciate the critical impact that both basic science and policy makers have on the future of our environment.

First, we must deal with what is in front of us. How can we repurpose existing waste to power our society in a sustainable way? Are strategies such as pyrolysis, the treatment of plastics with high heat and low oxygen to extract short chain hydrocarbons, the most efficient we can do? How efficient can we make them? Additionally, can we utilize nature and tune biology to do similar processes under ambient conditions?

Second, we must focus on the development of new materials. A number of research groups are focused on creating recycle-ready materials that can be easily repurposed using external stimuli such as temperature and catalysts that can carry out selective and complicated reactions under facile conditions. What types of materials are possible and how will they compare to the durable plastics we have in place? How will we scale these new materials to produce them in a cost-efficient manner?

Lastly, while the above strategies and key research objectives focus on basic scientific approaches to transform our waste into sustainable strategies, we also need to focus on extending the importance of our research to the non-scientific community. However, in order to accomplish this foundational restructuring, we need clear directives. The questions that need to be addressed span small and large scales. On a small scale, what do individuals see as the biggest challenges to implementing sustainable habits in their everyday lives and how much does general knowledge accurately reflect the conclusions of current scientific evidence about our environment? At a municipal and national level, our capitalistic democracy requires government and private industries to work cooperatively to govern the use of utilities such electricity and water. How do these groups communicate and work together and can they be better integrated? On a global level, how do governments work together to understand and address the biggest factors facing our nations' and communities' livelihoods? These research efforts require significant cross collaborations from both basic scientists and those researching social, behavioral, and economical patterns of people.

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