The REMADE Institute's bid to remake manufacturing for a sustainable future

The REMADE Institute is breaking down long-standing barriers between the businesses, government agencies, and research bodies that are essential to realizing American manufacturing’s transition to the circular economy. To do this, it relies on the same strategic collaborative model underpinning how the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) works. But this is no surprise—both organizations have Nabil Nasr as their principal architect.

More than 100 billion metric tons of materials are now consumed each year worldwide. The bulk of these are not renewable—minerals, ores, and fossil fuels continue to account for most of what goes into the global economy. These raw resources are mined or drilled, processed, and eventually manufactured into products that are transported across the globe. Extraction rates continue to rise to meet demand while recycling rates appear to be falling. A 2019 study discovered that only 8.6% of all material consumed gets recycled, a drop from 9.1%, just two years earlier.

Today, nearly all of the raw materials that go into our economy ends up as waste or pollution, fueling what is often called a “take, make, and dispose” economy. This linear economic model is depleting the very resources that sustain it. Eventually critical materials will dry up, triggering shortages, price volatility, and stunting economic growth where it’s most needed.

Looking ahead to this uncertainty, a growing number of manufacturers have committed to build a better future. They’re turning to a new understanding of how an economy can work—the circular economy. Instead of a one-way, extractive flow of materials and waste, the circular economy calls for a regenerative approach best defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation according to three key principles: 1) Design out waste. 2) Keep products and materials in use. 3) Regenerate natural systems.

Ideas are one thing; putting them into action is another. That’s where the Reducing EMbodied-Energy And Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute comes in, a new consortium of innovative manufacturers, nonprofits, universities, policymakers, and research bodies. The REMADE Institute—REMADE for short—sponsors groundbreaking research to solve real technical and business challenges that are facing industry through sustainable, circular uses of materials and energy. 

Trailblazing

A current project between the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Sunnking Inc. (an electronics waste-processing and recycling company), and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (an advocacy nonprofit for the recycling industry) aims to demonstrate the potential for separating out plastics and metals in electronic waste (e-waste) using solvent-based extraction process. If successful, the resulting method will skyrocket recyclers’ capacity to redirect e-waste into production by recovering valuable, reusable plastics and metals that would otherwise end up in landfills. It is estimated that the resulting innovation could save manufacturers 16 pJ (picojoules) of energy annually and keep 334,000 metric tons) of greenhouse gases from going into the Earth’s atmosphere every year. 

A solution for recovering e-waste like this one, if successful, will be critical to decoupling the consumer electronics industry from environmental degradation. As much as 50 million metric ton of e-waste are thrown away each year, yet only 20% of it is recycled in any way. Surprisingly, there is one hundred times more gold in a metric ton of e-waste than in the same amount of raw gold ore. This underscores an important distinction: The work is as much about opening new economic opportunity as it is about ending activities that are harmful to life on this planet.

By 2025, there won’t be enough recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) feedstock available to meet the projected production demand for plastic bottles, according to a 2019 study by the Recycling Partnership. That means manufacturers will turn to virgin PET polymer made from petroleum, even though PET is highly recyclable. Exploratory research being carried out in partnership between Michigan Technological University, the American Chemistry Council (an industry association whose membership includes BASF Corporation, Bayer Corporation, Dow, Honeywell, and Mitsubishi), and Idaho National Laboratory is working to solve this problem. The project aims to develop a systems-analysis framework that will allow companies to evaluate how different new technologies will contribute or hinder a “closed loop” supply chain for PET and other polymers. This would help decision-makers better understand the impacts of business and policy choices in light of recycled PET.

These public-private partnerships projects are just two examples of more than 30 now underway at REMADE that are designed to practically pave the way to the circular economy for companies based in the U.S.

Remaking manufacturing materials in the U.S.

On January 4, 2017, the United States Department of Energy (U.S. DOE) announced the creation of REMADE. It is the newest member of Manufacturing USA®, the fifth in the multiagency network to be led by the U.S. DOE. Fourteen institutes make up Manufacturing USA, which brings together over 1,300 companies, universities, and nonprofits as members. It is funded by a commitment of more than $920 million from the federal government, which has been exceeded by $1.87 billion in non-federal investment.

Each Manufacturing USA institute has a unique focus. When it comes to REMADE, its mission is to accelerate the transition to the circular economy through “early-stage applied research and development of key industrial platform technologies.” REMADE is strategically focused on increasing the recovery, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling (collectively referred to as Re-X) of metals, fibers, polymers, and electronic waste (e-waste).

Solving two problems at once

Every project that REMADE sponsors must achieve two goals that have long been considered contradictory. That is, each must significantly reduce the environmental impact of one of the most impactful industrial sectors in the United States, manufacturing, while at the same time creating new avenues for productivity and profitability for businesses.

Recapturing embodied energy

Public imagination most often ties GHG emissions to energy: Burning fossil fuels for power releases carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases like methane into the atmosphere. Renewable energy, on the other hand, does not. The picture becomes a little more complex, though, when you dive deeper into a manufacturer’s activities and supply chain.

Life cycle assessments have shown that a large proportion of the GHG emissions associated with manufacturing are indirect. In other words, a large share of the carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that are released into the atmosphere as part of industrial production are not generated on-site through the burning of fossil fuels. They are emitted all along the conventional, linear manufacturing supply chain, whether it’s the transportation of goods, refining and processing, or through post-consumer waste. Perhaps the biggest source of these emissions is the extraction of raw natural resources like petroleum and mineral ores to produce common materials like plastic and metal alloys.

REMADE was established to find opportunities for the circular economy in the context of manufacturing across all industrial sectors. “Embodied energy” is central to this. It’s a concept for describing all the energy that is represented in a single product, the accumulation of all the power generated and used to make it, including labor. It refers to all the fuel—renewable or not—spent during its full lifecycle, all that was used to extract, process, and transport all the materials that went into it.

In 2019, REMADE’s leadership estimated that its portfolio of research projects would lead to the conservation of more than 300 petajoules (PJ) of energy embodied in recovered materials and through more efficiently designed processes. This is equivalent to 50 million barrels of oil per year, realizing an annual GHG reduction of more than 10 million metric tons. Very clear material targets guide REMADE’s progress towards a sustainable future for manufacturing: a 30% reduction in primary feedstock consumption that is replaced by secondary (recovered) materials, a 30% reduction in energy demand, a 20% reduction in overall GHG emissions, and a 25% improvement in embodied-energy efficiency, to name only a few. 

Accelerating U.S. productivity

REMADE is not unique in identifying the critical sources of manufacturing’s environmental impacts. What sets it apart is how, through its model, it addresses the risk-averse tendency most companies experience when it comes to moving forward in less market-tested areas of sustainable innovations. The most common barriers these risk-averse businesses face when it comes to innovation within manufacturing are brute costs, availability of resources, and the transfer of new technologies into their operations. The institute was established to overcome these by driving down the cost of the emerging technologies that will make reuse, recycling, and remanufacturing of industrial materials commonplace.

Alongside its focus on retaining value from materials already in productive use, REMADE aims to increase the overall energy efficiency of manufacturing processes by 50% by 2027. Such an improvement would represent an immediate gain to businesses in terms of productivity.

If secondary feedstocks remain more expensive than primary ones, the likelihood of a sea change among how industrial supply chains work is unlikely to occur. That’s why a major goal of REMADE is to realize cost parity between secondary and primary resources—without doubt a critical milestone in the transition to the circular economy.

How REMADE funds projects 

Over 35 industry members belong to REMADE, representing about 640,000 employees within the manufacturing sector. Twenty-two academic institutions and 17 trade associations, nonprofits and affiliate organizations, and five national labs also belong to the consortium.

REMADE’s funding strategy follows a cost-sharing model in order to incentivize and sustain industry participation. Essential federal funding was secured through the U.S. DOE, launching the institute with a promised $70 million over the course of five years. This funding stream began in 2019 and will be matched by equal contributions from consortium members. In this way, every public dollar invested into a research at REMADE is matched by industry.

Individual research projects are strategically defined by REMADE’s Technical Leadership Committee (TLC), which includes industry leaders, subject matter experts, and decision-makers from the U.S. DOE. These are shared to REMADE’s members through project calls as requests for proposal (RFPs). Responses are then submitted by members and reviewed by a select committee made up of representatives from all of its stakeholders.

The REMADE Technology Roadmap (2018)

A roadmap serves as a guiding fundamental framework for REMADE. As an evolving document, it is revised annually with input from REMADE’s stakeholders and partners. The following three critical indicators are considered during this review:

  • the progress or pacing of proposed activities;
  • the emergence of new technologies or advancements to existing technologies; and
  • any changes in the U.S. manufacturing landscape.

The roadmap organizes REMADE’s activities into five nodes: systems analysis and integration; design for recovery, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling; manufacturing materials optimization; remanufacturing and end-of-life reuse; and recycling and recovery.

Each node signals a future outcome that REMADE intends to achieve through the cumulative results of the research partnerships it makes possible. The nodes were set following input gathered through an intensive workshop process ahead of the actual founding of REMADE. Consensus-building among REMADE's membership is fundamental to how the institute works. Stakeholders were engaged through online surveys, an expert workshop held in September 2017, and follow-up interviews.

Realizing REMADE

REMADE sets out to breakdown long-standing barriers between the actors who will be central to a successful transition to circular, sustainable manufacturing in the U.S. It relies on a strategic collaborative model not unlike the one that underpins how the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) works. But this is no surprise—both organizations have Nabil Nasr as their principal architect.

Nasr serves as the chief executive officer (CEO) of REMADE and is also the director of GIS. Throughout his career, Nasr has long advocated for sustainability as critical to the future competitiveness and readiness of U.S. manufacturing. Both organizations serve as centers for cultivating knowledge of circular economy technologies and tactics among industry players large and small.

Nasr was instrumental in the formation of REMADE. GIS, under the direction of Nasr, brought together a team of 26 universities, 44 companies, 26 trade associations, seven national labs, and three states to write a winning proposal in response to the original RFP issued by the U.S. DOE in 2017. 

“The manufacturing diversity of our industry partners and trade associations that represents an even broader sector of U.S. industry, coupled with the talent of our academic and national lab partners, ensure the continued success of the institute in solving the key challenges to domestic manufacturing sustainability and the achievement of a circular economy,” he wrote on the first anniversary of REMADE’s launch in 2019.

Cross-sector partnerships are fundamental to both organizations, and this approach helps them to build networks between oft-siloed decision-makers, resources, and expertise. Where REMADE leverages sponsorship of public-private partnerships to tackle specific industry challenges, GIS is home to a broad range of research, technology-transfer, and education programs. Relying on the power of collaboration, REMADE and GIS are able to translate sustainability into tenable, practical solutions that can help businesses and policymakers alike bridge the gap between economic prosperity and environmental stability.

About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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