As environmental impacts of human activities are mediated by physical materials, particularly “waste” generated from such activities, how to manage waste is fundamental to sustainable development. In a modern industrial society, safe containment and disposal has been the main strategy for managing waste, as waste is primarily understood as having a negative connotation. In moving toward a closed-loop material economy, my research aims to establish a transformative paradigm that views waste as a potential resource, and to improve understanding about how waste transforms into a resource.
To that end, I established a new paradigm where waste gets a new name and status as a potential resource with explicit values. The value of waste materials is measured by a novel indicator termed “reuse potential,” in terms of the extent of technological innovation in reuse technologies. Focusing on the interplay between technology and materials, I also examined the characteristics of such value-creating processes by exploring patterns of innovation for a waste reuse technology and underlying economic, regulatory, and institutional drivers. Waste evolves into a potential resource through innovation, but it becomes an actual resource only by being reused. To address the behaviors of actors governing the reuse of waste materials, I further assessed the impact of technical, economic, regulatory, and behavioral variables on the reuse of waste by conducting regression analyses and particularly highlighted the important role of behavioral factors in handling challenges and uncertainties of the reuse market.
All the findings in my research were empirically supported using coal combustion by-products (CCBs) as a test case. In 2009, the United States generated more than 120 million metric tons of CCBs, approximately 60% of which were discarded. One of the roadblocks for CCB reuse is negative perception of CCBs as toxic wastes, but 30% – 70% of CCBs were assessed as reusable in reasonably safe ways, according to reuse technologies commercially available in the same year. A more detailed study of CCB reuse technology identified and analyzed approximately 700 patents filed over more than 100 years. CCBs have evolved into highly resource-like materials through the development of these technologies, but their actual reuse requires additional conditions to be met, particularly in behavioral aspects.