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Preventing 2 Billion Tons of Waste: Introducing MIT Solve’s Circular Economy Challenge

Consider a pair of shoes. To make shoes, we need many different materials—plastics made from petroleum, leather created from cattle, and rubber produced from either trees or more petroleum. These materials are shipped to a factory, mixed with dyes or coatings, and glued or sewn together to create shoes, which are shipped to stores. After we buy and wear these shoes, we likely throw them in the trash, where they’re sent to a landfill to sit inert for hundreds of years.

These supply chains move in a linear line: take materials, produce item, throw it away. The process has a clear, permanent end once we discard the product.

Most of our products today—shoes, clothing, electronics, furniture, and more—come from these “take-make-waste” linear supply chains. These linear systems result in 2 billion tons of solid waste each year, produce a significant amount of the world’s carbon emissions, and are often associated with toxic working conditions for millions.

That’s why Solve launched our Circular Economy Challenge. We’re looking for solutions from anywhere in the world that enable us to shift supply chains from linear to circular, helping us reduce waste and improve lives along the way.

In September 2019, we’ll select the eight most promising solutions as Solver teams at Solve Challenge Finals in New York City. Each team will get a $10,000 grant from Solve and will be eligible for additional prize funding from our partners. Most importantly, over the following year, these Solver teams will receive focused support and connections to help them build the partnerships they need to succeed and scale the impact of their work.

What kinds of solutions are we looking for?

We’re seeking solutions anywhere along the supply chain that expand access to circular products, while reducing impacts on people and the planet. More specifically, we’re looking for solutions that address the following four themes.

1) Solutions that make products last.

Each time we hand down clothing, refurbish an appliance, or remanufacture an engine, we decrease the amount of materials we would need to produce a new item—along with any toxic chemicals to create it, transportation to ship it, or other resulting pollution.

For some people, this sort of product reuse is standard practice. You might shop at thrift stores or buy a refurbished cell phone. But when a culture of frequent purchasing sends 85 percent of clothing straight to landfills, it’s clear we need new business models that encourage and enable consumers and businesses to keep products in use longer.

2) Ways to design products with the whole system in mind.

Every product should be designed to be either biodegradable or recyclable. This means designers will need new techniques and tools to choose materials, new ideas for how to build them so they can break down, and new designs that don’t use dyes or chemicals that prevent recycling. Solutions could also help (re)make more products locally to cut out extra transportation and processing steps.

3) Solutions that scale supplies of better materials.

The supply and functionality of most “circular materials,” such as organic cotton, recycled polyethylene, or dissolvable bioplastics, are limited or expensive. We need to scale the supply of these materials so our products can biodegrade or be repeatedly recycled.

To make this possible, we need to focus on four areas: building market demand, improving our recycling technologies, scaling production of new materials, and reducing costs so these high-quality circular materials are available en masse.

4) Innovations that make great products available to everyone.

While designing this challenge, many people highlighted a gap in access to circular products. The majority of circular products currently come from luxury brands, yet the need for these products is often highest in low-income parts of the world, where they are unfortunately out of reach.

If given the right tools and opportunities, the best designs come from the people who will use them. To democratize who can design the circular economy, we need innovations that make business models, design tools, and low-impact manufacturing available to all people around the world.  

Are you working on an innovation that addresses one of these four dimensions? Submit your solution to the Circular Economy Challenge today! The deadline to apply is July 1.

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