We need sustainable and resilient cities—we need the technology and intelligence to enable them. But we also need to be thinking about building cities with materials that can be reused. Let’s look at what this really means for the planet.

According to the United Nations, cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. Yet, they account for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface. Another 2.5 billion people will reside in urban areas by 2050; nearly 90% of them in cities in Asia and Africa. If we want to address climate change, we need to start with our cities.

We likely all know recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash—and then turning them into new products. The benefits are obvious: reduce the amount of waste; conserve our natural resources; and saving energy. Some less obvious benefits can impact the bottomline of our businesses. Reusing materials in our cities can help support American manufacturing, while also increasing economic security by tapping into domestic source of materials.

Let me give you an example in one city. In the Houston area, construction materials account for roughly 38% of the waste stream. Much of this could be diverted and reused. The solution: circularity and reusing materials when building our cities. By storing the materials until they can be used by community groups, valuable resources can be kept out of local landfills. Enter The Building Materials Reuse Warehouse, a component of the City of Houston Solid Waste Management Dept. This nonprofit organization accepts materials from individuals, supply companies, and builders, and makes it freely available for reuse.

Initiatives such as this are great, but what if we could take this a step further? What if we could actually extract the material, return it back, upcycle, and reuse for a building? What if we could advance technology development and materials innovation to create a more circular city? Let’s explore what this might look like.

Future of Materials

The Acceleration Consortium brings academia, industry, and government together to build pre-competitive technologies for AI (artificial intelligence)-driven laboratories for pre-competitive materials and molecular applications. The Consortium will address fundamental challenges in deep learning algorithms and materials modeling, and practical issues of robotic control.

Consortium scientists also focus on materials and molecule discovery for a wide range of applications, from sustainable technologies to drug discovery. Here are a few of the areas of focus:

  • Environmentally friendly materials: biodegradable recyclable polymers, plastics, and fabrics designed for the circular economy.
  • Transportation and construction: low carbon and eco-friendly cement and lighter, stronger, corrosion-resistant alloys and composites.
  • Renewable energy: materials for energy generation and organic flow batteries for large-scale energy storage.

This is just a sampling of the research being done in materials science and engineering. We are seeing the rise of importance related to biodiversity, which encompasses the complex and vital components of our planets. Some examples include species diversity, genetic diversity, ecosystem diversity, and functional diversity. When talking about this in relation to our cities, it is important to recognize restoring and enhancing biodiversity is essential to helping our cities be resilient in the face of climate crisis.

If not, the impact could be drastic. We will continue to see infrastructure failures, power outages, food and resource shortages, and other devasting disasters as a result of climate change. This will cost our cities money—and lives. Hurricanes, wildfires, and other inclement events are only getting stronger, taking more lives than in years past. This is only the beginning. If we don’t make big changes, our urban locations will continue to experience the impacts of this crisis. We need to make the move to circularity today—and it starts in our cities.

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