Back to School Sustainability

August and September mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Back to school season is often stressful, especially because of the emphasis put on buying new school supplies. According to the 2018 Huntington Backpack Index, parents can expect to pay anywhere from $637 to $1,355 per child for classroom supplies, depending on their grade level. Back to school shopping is not only expensive, but it is also often wasteful because many students don’t end up using all of their supplies. Luckily, you can reduce the stress and expense of going back to school by following a few simple steps:

Take inventory of everything you already have

This is an essential first step not only because you won’t buy more of something you already have, but also because it gives you the opportunity to donate or sell things you don’t need anymore. Take a look at the C-U Donation Guide for more places to donate your used stuff.

Thrift your back to school fashion

If you are looking for some fresh pieces for your wardrobe you can check out local thrift stores like Courage Connection, Twice is Nice, or Goodwill.

Fix old supplies or thrift new used ones

The Gadget Garage will help you fix broken electronics. The Idea Store is a great place to go to for used school supplies. They stock everything from highlighters, to notebooks. The University YMCA also holds an annual Dump and Run sale in August where students can purchase a variety of used furniture and other household items for their apartments.

Buy used books

Choosing used or electronic books is always better than buying new ones because it is cheaper and saves so many trees. Also, consider borrowing the book from a friend or your local library.

Prepare a packed lunch

Taking lunch from home can save a lot of money and prevent unnecessary, single-use packaging from entering landfills. Plus, packed lunches are often more nutritious. Introducing Meatless Mondays into your schedule and limiting meat consumption whenever possible can also greatly reduce your environmental impact.  

Bike or walk to class

Cars are expensive to maintain and to park. Instead of driving, consider walking or biking to class. If you don’t have a bike and are interested in getting one, you can check the Campus Bike Shop where you can buy one used. You can also rent one from Neutral Cycle. Also, look for the Urbana Police Department’s annual bike giveaway in the spring. If you really need a car, consider ditching yours and using ZipCar.

Take public transportation

All students, faculty, and staff with an icard can ride the Champaign-Urbana MTD for free. It can take you almost anywhere in the Champaign Urbana area free of charge.  

Staff Profile: Jennifer Martin

Jennifer Martin is ISTC’s Environmental Program Development Specialist.

What was your background before coming to ISTC?

I was the senior program coordinator for the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN), my work included a wide range of experience in coordinating and evaluating sustainability programs for a network of 39 statewide Illinois Community College districts. Through this position, I frequently collaborate with various public, commercial, and non-profit partners to aggregate efforts, expertise, resources, and opportunities that focused on building renewable energy and energy efficiency programs for the network of colleges.

Prior to my work with IGEN, I had the opportunity to work as a project coordinator for a National Science Foundation/Advanced Technology Education (NSF/ATE) grant to help develop a solar market in the Midwest. Through this grant, I established, coordinated, and tracked efforts to implement a solar workforce development strategy for training programs, businesses, and local communities across the midwest.

In addition to my work advancing sustainability programs and initiatives at colleges in the midwest, I serve on the Board of Directors for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, and am a training sub-team co-lead for the Illinois Solar for All Working Group. The Illinois Solar for All Working Group formed to bring the best practices and policies to the Illinois energy landscape that will serve to maximize benefits of the Future Energy Job Act for the economically disadvantaged households and communities that the programs are intended to serve.

What are your responsibilities here?

I work to identify and present emerging research needs, trendsetting ideas, policies, or technologies to examine, and assist ISTC with fostering collaboration and building partnerships as we track emerging issues relevant to water, energy, public health, and environment.

What do you do on a typical day?

Right now I’m working to address efforts to prepare the state for a glut of end-of-life solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and ensure they are repurposed or recycled properly. ISTC is leveraging its resources by collaborating with its multidisciplinary team of experts to foster awareness with industry/business networks about this growing waste management challenge. Other responsibilities include bringing together the necessary stakeholders that are needed to develop PV end-of-life standards and a network of PV recyclers in Illinois while also looking to assist training providers in preparing a skilled workforce for this new and upcoming technical industry.

What is your favorite aspect of working here?

Working with a variety of talented, dedicated staff who are all passionate about preventing pollution, conserving natural resources, and reducing waste to protect human health and the environment.

 What are some common misconceptions about your career?  

Many people don’t get on the sustainability train due to the perception that it’s expensive. Efficiency is not always more expensive. People think it is, but it’s really not. In fact, sustainability will save you money in the long-run.

What are some challenges you’ve faced?

When it comes to coordinating business and educational components, it can be difficult to gather all the stakeholders involved and get everyone on the same page.

What work/project are you most proud of?  

I coordinated a solar installation at a low-income school. ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, Air Conditioning Engineers) was able to get $25,000 for the Lorenzo R. Smith Sustainability and Technology Academy in Pembroke Township, Illinois. We also installed a 5 kilowatt system at the school as well as education components with a focus on local sustainability activities.

 In what ways do you incorporate sustainability into your life?

I live in a community called Stelle that was founded on sustainability. It includes Illinois’ first solar-powered phone company. On a day-to-day basis, I hang my clothes up to dry instead of using a dryer, I have an electric-powered lawn mower, and a drive a hybrid vehicle. I also garden, compost, and recycle.

What is your favorite topic in sustainability?

Energy and energy efficiency.

University YMCA announces August 2018 collection days for Dump & Run sale

The University YMCA has announced August 2018 collection days for its annual Dump & Run Sale.

Drop Off Collection Dates & Times

  • August 14, 15, 16, and 17 from 9am-3pm
  • late drop off day Wednesday August 15: 9am-7pm
  • Drop off hours Saturday August 18: 9am-noon

They do NOT accept TVs, non-working electronics, sofa beds, and any chemicals. See for full list. Free pick-up day for furniture and bikes: August 8 and 9 from 9am-4pm. Request a pickup.

Sale Dates

Located at the Stock Pavilion, 1402 W. Pennsylvania Ave.

Saturday, August 25, 2018
8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. $3 admission
International U of I Students get in free with ticket.

Sunday, August 26, 2018
11:00am – 2:00 p.m.: $3 bag sale and 1/2 price furniture
2:30-3:00 p.m.: “Free sale”

Want to shop early? Volunteer 6+ hours for first dibs during the August pre-sale! Sign up today.

Looking for more places in Champaign-Urbana that accept donations? See the C-U Donation Guide.

Registration for the 2018 Illinois Sustainability Awards is now open

Registration for the 32nd Annual Illinois Sustainability Awards is now open. Join us to learn more about cutting-edge sustainable business strategies and celebrate the 2018 award finalists.

Register now!

The event will take place on October 23rd, 2018 at:

Union League Club
65 W. Jackson Street
Chicago, IL

Registration prices are:

  • $60/person – Morning technical symposium only
  • $100/person – Awards luncheon and ceremony only
  • $150/person – Full day event, including morning symposium, luncheon and awards ceremony.
  • $250/person – Exhibit table, includes full day event, with morning symposium, luncheon, and awards ceremony.

Sponsorship opportunities are also available and include a wide array of benefits. Visit our Sponsorship page for more information on the benefits of supporting this signature Illinois event.

Wondering what’s happening at this year’s Awards Ceremony? Find the agenda here. More speakers to be announced soon.

If you have any questions about registration or sponsorships, please contact Irene Zlevor (; 630-472-5016)

We hope that you can join us to celebrate this year’s Award winners.

Biomass research is heating up

There aren’t many ancient practices that still have a place in the 21st century. One exception is the burning of biomass, which is organic matter that can be used as fuel, like grass or wood. Biomass is made up of plant material that absorbs the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. When it’s burned, the chemical energy is released as heat. Biomass can be burned directly or converted to liquid biofuels or biogas that can also be burned as fuel.

On July 18th, ISTC researchers B.K Sharma and Sriraam Chandrasekaran held an open house to demonstrate a biomass system they’ve developed with funding from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The project’s goal is to create a renewable, carbon-neutral heating system. The demonstration was organized to raise community awareness about biomass, as well as ISTC’s renewable energy research.

The project uses waste grass that has grown along highways in Illinois to power a combustion heating system. Currently, the system is being used to heat greenhouses, but the researchers believe this technology has the potential to become able to heat even larger spaces. The researchers estimate that the project will save $3 million in public funds by harvesting the biomass for energy. Chandrasekaran says that he believes the possibilities of using biomass as an energy source are endless.

Collection, production, storage, transportation, and the environmental impact of the biomass all need to be carefully evaluated before it becomes marketable. Sharma and Chandrasekaran are interested in discovering which species of plants will produce the maximum amount of efficiency per pound. They are also researching the pelletizing ability of the grasses.

There are some downsides to burning biomass. The sustainability of the energy created depends on the carbon emissions produced during the entire lifecycle of the feedstock. Variables include the type of feedstock, the manner in which it is harvested, and the scale and technology used to convert the feedstock to energy.

This project has made great strides in three years. The efficiency of the combustion and boiler is near 80 percent, compared to other systems that average just under 50 percent. Research is heating up. Burning biomass is a technology from the past that will continue to be useful in the future.

The Interesting World of Solar Panels

WRITTEN BY: John Mulunda, ISTC intern

Can you guess which energy source has had an average annual growth of 59% in the past decade? If you guessed solar energy then you’re right. Solar energy’s sustained annual growth is due to advances in module technology creating competitiveness with other energy technologies, as well as the decline in soft costs for residential and small commercial installations.   

About Solar Panels

Simply put, solar panels are devices that turn the sun’s light into electricity. Each solar panel is made up of multiple cells connected/wired together to create the necessary electrical power needed for the application. Most solar panels on the market today are made from silicon, a semiconducting material. Each cell contains a semiconductor wafer that forms an electric current that is positive on one side and negative on the other. When light energy hits the solar panel, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material. If electrical conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides, they form an electrical circuit for electricity to flow to an electrical load such as a light or computer.


With the large increase in expected solar installations in Illinois and beyond over the next several years, what happens to these panels if they are damaged or when they reach the end of their design-life? While some of them are being repurposed or recycled, many are ending up in landfills. However, landfill disposal may not be the best use of human and natural resources. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, there will be 60 to 78 million cumulative metric tons of solar panel waste globally. Careful deconstruction of this waste is essential to recover component toxics (cadmium, lead) and valuable metals (silver, iridium, gallium) that otherwise would be landfilled, which prevents possible contamination of water and air systems through leaching and open burning, respectively.

In addition, recyling solar panels allows the opportunity to recover metals, such as silver, aluminum, silicon, and gallium, that would otherwise have to be extracted. In fact, it takes a lot of work to extract gallium because it is not found as a free element in nature. It exists only in trace amounts of various compounds such as zinc or aluminum ores.

Law & Policy – Planning for the Future

There is a bright side to all of this: the value of the recovered materials from solar panel recycling and reuse could be over $15 billion by 2050. Furthermore, many countries have thought about what to do with damaged and or end-of-life solar panels.Some governments have already created laws, while others are in the process of doing so. The European Union (EU) passed a law that requires all producers who sell solar panels in the EU to pay the costs of collecting and recycling panels.

In the U.S., there are no federal laws for solar panel disposal, but the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is working to establish a national network of certified solar recyclers. Additionally, the State of Washington requires solar manufacturers that sell in Washington to finance the upfront costs of collecting and recycling the panels. The state of New York is in the process of writing a law that will allow the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to work with manufacturers to create a program to help with the collection, transportation, recycling, and disposal of used solar panels. This program would be funded by the manufacturers.

As of 2018, Illinois does not have solar panel recycling regulations. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center is working with the Illinois EPA, Illinois Solar Energy Association, SEIA, and recycling companies to create a solar panel recycling network. On July 18, 2018, ISTC staff, Nancy Holm and Jennifer Martin, will be at a SWANA Illinois meeting presenting a joint talk about how to make the emerging solar panel market in Illinois more sustainable through recycling.

Staff Profile: John Mulunda

At the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, it takes a variety of people with different backgrounds, expectations, and experiences to keep the organization operating successfully. Today we’ll be introducing you to our summer intern John Mulunda, who has made several valuable contributes as an ISTC team member.

John moved to the Champaign-Urbana area in 2008 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. John enlisted in the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) at the conclusion of his sophomore year at Urbana High School. SYEP placed him at ISTC based on his interests in research and technology.  

At ISTC, John has worked on several different projects, such as making posters for a display or doing research. Some of the subject areas he’s researched this summer include solar panels, food and beverage manufacturers, community colleges, and publicly owned treatment works. Despite the occasional difficulty of balancing his work life with his outside interests, John says that his favorite part of working at ISTC has been the professional environment, knowing what’s expected of him, and having the opportunity to get it done.

Where is he headed in the future? John says, “I want to one day work in policymaking. My dream job is to work for the United Nations.”

Staying Eco-Friendly on the 4th

The 4th of July is finally here and public venues across the country are gearing up for their annual fireworks shows. While it may be customary to view fireworks strictly based on their entertainment value, there’s more complexity to the science and environmental impact behind them than meets the eye. 


The earliest documentation of fireworks dates back to ancient China. As early as 200 BCE, the Chinese discovered that when they roasted bamboo, it would explode as the air heated inside the hollow interior pockets. Some time between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, creating an early form of gunpowder. They stuffed this mixture inside bamboo stalks that were thrown into a fire to produce loud blasts. Eventually, they began attaching these shoots to arrows and launching them into the sky. Fireworks have come a long way since then and their environmental impact has become a growing concern.

Fireworks manufacturers combine a variety of toxic materials in order to create the vibrant colors we all love. Perchlorate is used as a propellant. Metal salts create the colors. Researchers have found that these contaminants impact air quality and often persist in soil and water.

Researchers have come up with ways to make fireworks more environmentally friendly. For example, nitrogen-rich pyrotechnics have been proven to demonstrate better performance with greater color quality and smoke free burning. Chemists have also explored the use of magnesium diboride as more environmentally friendly alternative to barium for producing green light in pyrotechnics. 

With locations in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama, Mark’s Fireworks Factory Outlets has been one of the most successful fireworks retailers in the region since 1999. Sara Thoele, manager of the Effingham, IL, Mark’s location for over three years, believes that there are major benefits to be had in eco-friendly fireworks for both vendors and consumers. “I think that the fireworks industry can sometimes get a negative reputation for not having public safety in mind,” Thoele said. “So I think that making moves to be a more environmentally-friendly store would be a great demonstration that we do have the safety, health, and comfort of our communities in mind.”    

Thoele pointed out that when buying inventory for the summer season, many fireworks purveyors focus solely on competitive pricing, appealing packaging, and the guarantee of reliable, functional entertainment. However, the appeal of an eco-friendly spin to the fireworks industry has powerful value for both retailers and the communities they serve.