1236447 (Babbitt). This project will adapt concepts and models from the field of biological community ecology and apply them to analyze adoption dynamics, environmental impacts, and sustainable management strategies for an entire "community" of consumer products. Research goals are to 1) formulate a new industrial ecology framework based on community ecology to link sustainable production practices with consumption trends; and 2) apply this framework to address sustainability challenges of consumer electronic products, a rapidly growing and evolving component of global society. The research is grounded in fundamental concepts and models of biological community ecology and implemented in three interconnected lines of inquiry: 1. Adapt community ecology-based diversity metrics to characterize the structure of the community of consumer electronics products owned by households and investigate the underlying trends in product function and consumption dynamics; 2. Evaluate the environmental impacts (energy, materials, waste) for this entire product system using "community-level" life cycle assessment and material flow analysis and then determine how this impact changes as a function of evolving community diversity; and 3. Use ecological models to identify the exogenous forces and community-level product interactions that determine the community structure and its attendant environmental impacts so that future environmental management strategies can effectively target system leverage points. The community ecology perspective pioneered in this research brings a new perspective to long standing challenges in the sustainable management of products. Current approaches such as life cycle assessment and energy efficiency analysis focus on "per product" impacts. Environmental gains from incremental changes to a single product or material, however, are often offset by increased consumer demand. Treating groups of related products as an ecological community brings analytical tools such as diversity analysis and structural equation modeling to bear on sustainable production and consumption. The models evaluated can potentially transform the way we assess and manage electronic products, as demonstrated in this project, but are also translatable to other sectors with high levels of interaction (e.g., renewable energy systems). The multidisciplinarity embedded in this research is enabled by a project team with expertise spanning sustainability assessment, electronic products, biological ecology, and technological modeling. Electronics have unique sustainability challenges that span the products? life cycles, including rapid increases in energy consumption, greenhouse gas production, demand for scarce minerals, and waste generation. Knowledge developed for electronic products can inform policy making, guide sustainable product design, communicate best practices to consumers, optimize recycling systems, and minimize life cycle environmental impacts. For the industrial ecology field as a whole, there is transformational potential associated with connecting to new ecological domains and tools. This work could stimulate further innovation to identify and utilitize previously unexplored ecological metaphors and models. To realize these benefits, broader impact activities will 1) promote multidisciplinary collaboration and education through curriculum development and broad research dissemination; 2) enhance engagement of underrepresented faculty and graduate and undergraduate students in STEM disciplines; 3) increase public scientific literacy through digital outreach and education efforts; and 4) improve industry-academic partnerships by translating research findings for an industrial education and training program in industrial community ecology.

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Rochester Institute of Tech
United States
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