News Release

Convergence and collaboration to achieve circularity

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Pittsburgh

The linear consumption model of raw material extraction, production, use, and disposal dominates the global economy, but it’s led to serious unintended global consequences: from resource use to pollution including negative impacts on environmental and human health that disproportionately affect the Global South. 

In contrast, circular economy – a model where products and materials are by design kept in continual use – aims to decouple economic growth from resource consumption.

While approaches to implement  a circular economy (CE) approach continue to be discussed at the highest levels of government and global organizations, cities and communities are at the frontlines. Getting a CE to work in practice requires collaboration between government, businesses, local stakeholders and everyone in between. 

A research team from the University of Georgia College of Engineering and the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI) and Swanson School of Engineering have been awarded a $5,000,000 cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue their efforts to build a circular economy. This Phase 2 project, Track I: SpheriCity -- Circularity from Molecules to the Built Environment in Communitiesis a continuation of their Phase 1 project, “A Tale of Two Cities: Optimizing Circularity from Molecules to the Built Environment,” and is part of the NSF's Convergence Accelerator

“The primary goal of Phase 1 of this project was to use the Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP) framework – a standardized assessment protocol used to inform decision-making on materials usage and management – to converge circularity across four different categories: molecules, plastics, organic materials, and the built environment,” said Jenna Jambeck, Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering and PI. “In Phase 2 we're making it easier for cities to conduct CAP, so community experiences can translate to eleven other locations throughout the US, eventually scaling to hundreds of cities.” 

The team, called SpheriCity, also includes seven industry, government and NGO partners.

 “We are using a network of networks approach in Phase 2.  For example, we have partnered with the Green Building Alliance and working with their amazing leadership and team to expand the reach of CAP,” said Melissa Bilec, co-director of Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, Special Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability, and the George M. and Eva M. Bevier Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pitt. Dr. Bilec is the co-principal investigator. The research team at Pitt also includes Dr. Amy Brooks, post-doctoral associate, and Nicole Bell, doctoral student.

Adding Construction and Demolition to the Original Plastics CAP 

SpheriCity is expanding the CAP developed in Phase 1 to different materials outside of only plastics and organics by creating the first version of the Construction and Demolition (C&D) Convergence CAP. 

Pittsburgh was used as a pilot location to understand what a Construction and Demolition CAP would look like when scaled to cities across the world. The methods and lessons learned for the newly updated and expanded CAP will be used for future implementations, including 11 new cities for Phase 2. 

“The goal of the C&D Convergence CAP is to further educate cities and governments on moving toward circularity and to empower users to make more informed decisions,” Bilec said. “By understanding the value of materials already in use in their area, they can develop methods to recycle and reuse construction materials through deconstruction in order to meet their goals of reducing embodied carbon and meet their zero waste goals.” 

As it continues to grow, the data will be publicly available through the Debris Tracker open access tool developed by Jambeck’s lab – joining over 7 million other data points in nearly 100 countries across the world. 

Training Today for a Less Toxic Tomorrow 

Circular economies thrive on collaboration and transparency with communities. 

SpheriCity is creating a dynamic portal that simultaneously provides CAP data collection training, open-source data sharing, and intra- and inter-community collaboration. 

The SpheriCity Portal is providing asynchronous remote training to local partners on how to conduct the integrated SpheriCity CAPs in their own communities. Additionally, the existing 51 cities that have completed plastics CAPs could expand to C&D and/or organics using the portal. Through dynamic data dashboards, this portal will also provide data and the ability to interact with it. Users will be provided the option to connect with others and participating cities, enabling dialogue to further circular economy opportunities. 

“Local knowledge and expertise are the foundation of the information that the community uses to move toward circularity,” Jambeck said

The NSF Convergence Accelerator program uses a convergence approach, bringing together teams from various fields to transition their basic research to high-impact solutions for societal challenges.

The SpheriCity Convergence Accelerator project is anticipated to continue through 2026.

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