Our research

Overview of our research program

The Material Flow Innovation Research Program is a strategic research program of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan, for FY2021 to 2025. The research conducted as part of the program is focused on the assessment and enhancement of material flows over entire product life cycles to achieve the sustainable utilization of resources that form the foundation of planetary health. Specifically, the program investigates the material flows in society and through the economy as material use chains that affect a diverse array of economic actors. In addition, the program analyzes the accumulation of materials in society, and emissions into the environment during the entire material life cycle, from resource extraction to recycling and disposal, and explores the critical social and technological innovations that are required in order to realize a transition in material flows in a way that promotes planetary health. The program also seeks to develop and assess countermeasures to mitigate factors that have an adverse effect on sustainability.

The program consists of the following three research projects:

  • Project 1 (Material flows transition and social adaptation) explores vital transition pathways for material flows and designs social adaptation measures.
  • Project 2 (Chemical management for material flows transition) develops methods to manage chemical substances and environmental pollutants in harmony with the transition in material flows.
  • Project 3 (Material circulation and sequestration technology) examines material recycling and sequestration technologies, and systems that can be adapted to the transition in material flows.

Through these projects, the program will contribute to the accumulation of scientific knowledge on the transition pathways of material flows founded on planetary health, and will support the enhancement of resource productivity and circular economy policies. The outcomes of the program are expected to create a variety of stakeholders involved in material life cycles and facilitate the development of new social trends and employ long-term strategies to innovate material flows.

Project 1

Material flows transition and social adaptation

Objectives and overview

The objectives of Project 1 (PJ1) are to explore the long-term direction and adopt science-based targets (SBTs) for material flow transition towards planetary health, and to design measures that will help society to adapt to the transition, with a focus on the supply chains of materials, infrastructure, and consumption. To this end, the project focusses on the development of "material-flow-nexus models", which are computational models (e.g., input-output models, stock-flow models, and statistical models) that can be used to analyze the environmental and social impacts associated with material flows in society.

Using these material-flow-nexus models, we will examine the dynamics of material availability under future environmental constraints for determining SBTs for materials, and identify environmental hot spots within material supply chains in order to prioritize the implementation of technological measures. The models also illustrate the lifestyle changes that will need to be adopted by society in order to meet sustainability targets. The project will contribute to the accumulation of scientific knowledge in areas related to the design of transition pathways for material flows, leading to planetary health.

Research plan

In the first three years (FY2021–2023), we will analyze the current status and historical changes in material flows and quantify the diverse impacts of the flows on planetary health; this will clarify the structural relationship between the material flows and their impacts. Then, by using those results to develop the material flow nexus models, a methodological foundation for long-term scenario analyses will be consolidated. By 2025, we will have compiled data on major production technologies, consumption patterns, and their effects on material flows/stocks according to different future scenarios. In addition, it will be possible to estimate “material budgets” until 2100 by considering the type of materials, and explore the optimal temporal allocation of the budgets for each scenario. The material budget is an analogue of the carbon budget, and refers to the maximum amount of materials that could be available at a global level under a given set of environmental constraints and their effect on planetary health.

We will illustrate global and Japan's long-term goals regarding material productivity and material circulation by considering material budgets and propose policy indicators for monitoring progress and for identifying gaps in achieving these goals. Furthermore, we will focus on material efficiency improvements by decoupling consumption and material use, examine the sufficiency and acceptability of consumer needs, and propose lifestyle adaption measures as they relate to consumption by society in order to achieve these goals.

Expected outcomes

Scientific knowledge on the transition of material flows will be compiled to assess planetary health, and will be disseminated in the form of opinion papers. Through these activities, the project will support producers and consumers to manage material flows effectively and achieve SBTs for materials.

Project 2

Chemical management for material flows transition

Objectives and overview

Project 2 (PJ2) aims to establish a scientific framework for the effective management of chemical substances and environmental pollutants in order to facilitate the transition in material flows and improve planetary health. To achieve this objective, we will provide evaluation frameworks and analysis methods in the following areas: understanding the behaviors of chemical substances and environmental pollutants especially through the material cycles; identifying the factors that hinder the material flows transition; and proposing measures to eliminate these factors to promoting the material flows transition.

We will conduct a series of case studies in order to examine the validity of these frameworks and methods. The subjects of the case studies will include plastics and other materials containing persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including flame retardants (BFRs) and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); metal-containing products, such as durable goods; recycled construction materials containing heavy metals; and environment-polluting marine plastics and microplastics. Each case study will identify specific points and causal factors that hinder the transition to the new flows of the materials concerned, and will be used to propose measures to eliminate these hindering factors.

Research plan

In the first three years (FY2021–2023), we will develop future scenarios for recycling materials and products such as plastics, metal-containing products, and recycled construction materials to reflect current and potential future societal requirements. We will analyze the behavior of chemical substances, marine plastics, and microplastics during the key processes of recycling etc. under a variety of future scenarios and develop a model to analyze the flows of chemical substances within the economic sphere and the emission of pollutants into the environment.

In the following two years (FY2024–2025), we will perform system analyses based on these future scenarios and the results of behavior analysis. The analyses will incorporate the material flows and emission inventories from studies, and will identify factors that hinder transitions in material flows. These factors will be identified by reviewing the changes in different standards and regulations (e.g., legal controls, risk management levels etc.), and we will further develop scenarios in which different measures are implemented in order to manage chemical substances and environmental pollutants in a way that will not limit the transition to the new material flows.

Expected outcomes

The project activities are expected to lead to the establishment of a scientific review scheme that will suggest possible ways in which chemical substances and environmental pollutants can be managed in a way that can be harmonized with the transition to desirable material flows in the future. The project is expected to contribute to the development of integrated policies for both material flows and managing both chemical substances and environmental pollutants.

Project 3

Material circulation and sequestration technology

Objectives and overview

The objective of Project 3 (PJ3) is to develop, on the waste treatment/disposal side, material recycling/sequestration technologies and systems that can adapt to the transition in material flows on the production side, and to propose transition methods for realizing planetary health. More specifically, the project will develop carbon recycling technologies and systems that lead to negative carbon emissions, and pollutant-sequestration technologies that can be applied to waste management. Steps for introducing these technologies will be presented in the form of a roadmap, which will consider social factors and contain appropriate policy mechanisms and financial plans for their introduction.

The project covers three sub-themes. The first sub-theme involves the development of new technologies and systems for recycling, proper disposal, sequestration of hazardous substances to respond to the transition in material flows from the perspective of effective waste management. To that end, a variety of scenarios will be formulated and examined to identify the most appropriate pathways (i.e., time, place and scale) for introducing these systems, and for transforming the existing waste processing systems. The second sub-theme deals with development of recycling technologies in conjunction with a system to convert bio-based waste into energy and valuable materials with negative carbon emissions. The second sub-theme will also focus on ensuring safety and reducing pollution through the conversion processes. The third sub-theme addresses the development of long-term storage/isolation/disposal technologies to improve the safety of recycled materials and reduce negative impacts of hazardous substances on the global environment.

Research plan

In the first three years (FY2021–2023), we will focus on kitchen and plastic waste to identify optimal production and consumption patterns that enable carbon-negative emissions in recycling and treatment processes. With the aim of converting biomass-derived consumer products to carbon stocks, we will verify the methods and requirements required for converting residues via thermal decomposition of biomass or organic waste to sequester carbon in the soil and in construction materials. In parallel, by linking thermal gasification and fermentation processes, the project will build integrated systems that convert derived gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), into fuels. Further, mathematical models will be developed for evaluating the emission-control functions of the long-term storage and disposal technologies, and systems designed to isolate harmful substances from the environment.

In the following two years (FY2024–2025), a roadmap for the transition will be developed with detailed plans (e.g., time, place and scale) for realizing production, consumption and waste management systems that can contribute to the transition of material flows. With regards to ensuring the safety of carbon storage, the project will assess the presence/absence of hazardous chemical substances and other pollutants in thermally treated waste residues, and demonstrate the most applicable methods for curbing environmental emissions. In addition, the project will establish integrated systems for converting the derived CO2 and CO gases into chemical products, and demonstrate how interactions between recycled inorganic materials and living organisms can promote carbon fixation. Based on the results of these studies, we will evaluate the application of these technologies to the integrated regional treatment of recyclable materials, as well as evaluating their negative carbon-emission effects. Further, we will propose basic conditions for efficiently managing and maintaining the mechanisms for isolating hazardous substances.

These findings will be presented as guidelines for distinct risk scenarios, from the perspective of the material's transportation and structural stability. Finally, the project will examine how environmental risks can be reduced in the extreme long term, as well as how sound material flows can be ensured through the application of these technologies under the proposed conditions.

Expected outcomes

Through these developments, the project will present optimal pathways for consumption and production, as well as down-stream material flows, all focused on the goal of realizing a carbon-neutral society by 2050. The project team will examine the developed technologies and develop the roadmap for regional decarbonization through collaboration with the local community. These results are expected to be promoted and integrated into the core operations of local municipalities with the aim of establishing a sound material-cycle society. Upon completion of the project, technologies and systems of long-term storage and management of hazardous substances will have been established, which will contribute to the safety of the regions in which these substances are managed as well as reducing global carbon emissions. The research results are also expected to provide a scientific basis for drastically altering the requirements for managing specially controlled waste and ensuring its safe disposal.