ISTC provides technical assistance from a distance

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) at the University of Illinois makes companies and communities more competitive and resilient with sustainable business practices, technologies, and solutions. TAP works at the intersection of industry, science and government to help clients achieve profitable, sustainable results.

In service to the State of Illinois, ISTC provides all Illinois organizations, businesses, manufacturing facilities, institutions and governments the opportunity for one free site visit and sustainability assessment from TAP. However, in light of the Governor’s stay-at-home order and restrictions on non-essential travel for University personnel as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, TAP staff members are currently not conducting in-person site visits.

But this does not mean that we are not still here to serve you. Our staff members are working remotely, and are available to help your business or community with:

  • Answers to questions related to waste reduction, water and energy efficiency and conservation
  • Guidance on institutional water treatment, particularly given recent changes to building use patterns
  • Greening your supply chain
  • Sustainability visioning, goal setting, planning and communication with stakeholders
  • Information on alternative technologies and processes to reduce resource consumption, hazardous material use, and emissions
  • General recommendations for process improvement, which can increase your productivity while reducing your negative environmental footprint

Learn more about TAP services and impacts on the ISTC web site. If you are interested in scheduling a site visit in the future, when travel restrictions have been lifted, fill out our form to request a site visit.  Questions can also be directed to istc-info@illinois.edu, to receive immediate assistance.

Subscribe to our monthly e-mail newsletter on sustainability for food and beverage manufacturers at https://groups.webservices.illinois.edu/subscribe/115948.

You can also keep up to date on TAP projects and services, case studies, and guidance by subscribing to the ISTC blog (look for the “subscribe” box for email input on the main blog page) or exploring the blog’s Technical Assistance category. Our web site also provides a list of fact sheets, case studies and other publications which may provide inspiration for your efforts. In the coming months, TAP will also be developing a new web site to more fully describe recent projects, successes, and services; this will be linked to directly from the main ISTC web site. Be on the lookout for it!

Finally, on April 9th, at 12 PM Central, we invite you to join us for a webinar, Ann Arbor Summer Festival (A2SF) Festival Footprint: Going Zero Waste. Learn more and register at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/4557515682919003659. If it inspires you to pursue zero waste at your facility or in your community, we’d love to discuss opportunities and ideas with you! Reach out to our zero waste team at istc-zerowaste@illinois.edu.  If you want to receive notifications of future webinars from ISTC, you can sign up at https://groups.webservices.illinois.edu/subscribe/53516.

Stay safe and know that we are here to support your organization’s sustainability efforts during this difficult time.

How can I help influence the takeout containers restaurants are purchasing?

Have a question about living a greener life? Joy Scrogum's work focuses on food waste, waste reduction, and reuse. Ask her anything about being more sustainable. We'll post her answers next week.This is the first in a periodic series of Ask Me Anything (AMA) posts where ISTC features a researcher on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts and solicits questions from our followers. We post the answers on the original platform and also aggregate them into a wrap-up blog post. Our first featured researcher is Joy Scrogum.

Question (from Facebook): I like to order takeout food from the many amazing restaurants in my neighborhood, but cringe at all the waste this generates. Some of this serveware I can compost and recycle, but some of it I cannot.  How can I help influence the takeout containers restaurants are purchasing?

Joy: I’m glad you’re thinking about this. consumers really have more power than they tend to think. First of all, let me note that during the current pandemic, we all have to make allowances for the takeout containers being used by our local restaurants. It’s fabulous that they’re open and delivering. It’s important to support them during this difficult time and recognize that exploring new packaging is, of course, not a priority for them now. One thing you can do when ordering takeout is remember to ask a restaurant to not include unnecessary disposable items with your order (e.g. plastic utensils, napkins, condiment packets, plastic straws, etc.). That will not only prevent waste, but also save them a little money and reduce the opportunity for contamination as we practice social distancing.

When we’ve gotten past this pandemic, the easiest thing you can do is voice your concerns about packaging to the manager of a restaurant, along with your reasoning (e.g. polystyrene foam, aka Styrofoam, its persistence, difficulty/inability to recycle in your area, etc.). Always start on a positive note by letting them know what you enjoy about their food and service, if you’re a long-time customer, etc., and then tell them what’s troubling you, so the conversation doesn’t seem like an attack.

It’s also important to bear in mind that businesses, especially small ones, are making decisions based on costs. So when you speak or write to someone with your concerns, acknowledge that price is an issue for them and be prepared to provide some tools that might help them choose “greener” options available at similar or better prices than what  they’re currently using. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) has developed the Foodware Cost Calculator, which allows restaurants or other foodservice operations to compare the costs of their currently used disposable products to reusable options (e.g. plastic utensils vs. real silverware) or alternative disposable items (e.g. recyclable, compostable, made with recycled content, etc.). PSI also has a guidance document that can help businesses reduce their plastic footprint, and understand the benefits, called 3 Steps to Reduce Plastic & Benefit Your Business. You might also point out examples of preferable packaging used by other businesses in your area or elsewhere to help make the case for what is possible. A few examples that come to mind include Just Salad, which uses reusable to-go packaging, and Farmer’s Fridge, which operates fresh-food vending machines using recyclable and reusable containers. 

You can always use existing consumers ratings mechanisms, such as Yelp, Google, or Facebook, to express support for businesses using greener packaging or dismay at a restaurant with great food but problematic to-go packaging. An interesting new app from developers in Colorado is called PlasticScore. It allows you to provide feedback to restaurants on single-use plastic, as well as see waste-related ratings of nearby restaurants so you can support businesses practices that align with your values. It’s pretty new (just launched in March 2020), so you might not find a lot of information applicable to your area right now, but you could certainly contribute your own feedback to help expand their database.

Another thing to keep in mind related to compostable packaging is that sort of packaging only degrades properly in commercial composting operations (e.g. services that pick up compostables from a business or via residential drop-off or curbside composting programs). Backyard compost piles don’t attain the proper temperatures or other conditions to effectively break down those items. So before asking a restaurant to switch to compostable items, check to see if commercial composting is available in your area. It’s unfortunately true that such service is not available in many areas of Illinois.

I’m a proud member of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC), which is working to expand food scrap composting in our state. Check the IFSC’s online list of haulers and compost processors to see if commercial food scrap composting exists in your area. If so, you can let your favorite restaurants know, and also point out that if they decide to start composting their food scraps and compostable packaging, they could receive recognition through IFSC’s We Compost program.

Finally, you can influence restaurants and other diners through your own example. When we’re all able to dine-in at our favorite restaurants again, consider taking your own reusable food storage container or foil from home for packing any leftovers, instead of asking the restaurant for a box. When people see you doing this, it can spark conversation about packaging and may inspire someone else to do the same. Many coffee shops offer discounts for folks who bring in their own reusable mug. Be sure to ask if your favorite shop does this, so they know there is interest, and remember to take advantage of such incentives where they exist.

Note: ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

COVID-19 and Facility Water Systems Management

ISTC’s Institutional Water Treatment (IWT) program has developed a set of recommendations for facility managers to help them maintain their water systems in light of new federal, state, and local COVID-19 policies that change building use patterns.

If you have questions or need assistance, contact:

  • Jeremy Overmann: joverman@illinois.edu or (217) 333-5903
  • Angie DiAscro: DiAscro2@illinois.edu or (217) 300-3882
  • Cameron Dillion: dillion2@illinois.edu or (217) 244-0179
  • Jenn Tapuaiga: jenn210@illinois.edu or (217) 300-0084
  • Mike Springman: springma@illinois.edu or (618) 468-2780

Technical Assistance Program helps UI Facilities & Services improve recycling collection

History and context

In 2008, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, becoming part of a network of institutions of higher education committed to campus carbon neutrality by the year 2050. UI developed an Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) as a roadmap to reducing the campus carbon footprint and achieving carbon neutrality. The iCAP identifies relevant goals, objectives, and potential strategies in the following categories: energy conservation and building standards; energy generation, purchasing, and distribution; transportation; water and stormwater; purchasing, waste, and recycling; agriculture, land use, food, and sequestration; carbon offsets; financing; education; outreach; and research.

Cover of 2015 Illinois Climate Action PlanSince the development of the iCAP, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has worked with UI Facilities and Services (F&S) on multiple projects to facilitate achievement of a 45% campus waste diversion target by 2020, as part of the overarching campus carbon neutrality efforts. In 2014 and 2015, TAP gathered baseline data on the types and magnitude of waste generated on campus and identified opportunities for waste reduction, diversion, and improvement of material collection. The results of those efforts can be found in the 2014 Baseline Waste Characterization Study and the 2015 Recycling and Waste Reduction Opportunity Assessment. An educational project coincided with the second phase of this waste characterization effort, in which TAP staff guided UI students in the creation of a sculpture crafted from materials from the campus waste stream. The sculpture, along with campus waste characterization data and facts related to waste generation and management in the US, were displayed at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts during Earth Week in 2016, to raise awareness about campus materials management. In 2015, TAP also collaborated with F&S to retrofit existing refuse containers located on the main Quad, creating combined waste and recycling stations in an effort to improve capture of recyclable materials.

TAP has since collaborated with campus Waste Transfer Station (WTS) staff to increase diversion rates across campus, as well as improve the efficiency of current waste management operations. Key components of this collaboration have included the development of a streamlined materials tracking system, as well as analysis of material flows through and from campus buildings to the WTS, to identify opportunities for process improvement.

In 2018, TAP worked with F&S staff to digitize collection truck weight tickets and create a new online tracking portal. The portal, rolled out in December 2018, allows WTS staff to measure, analyze, and report on the material moving through the system. This level of detail can allow targeted modifications to hauling routes, pickup frequency, and collection container deployment to improve capture of specific waste streams, as well as provide data to inform potential outreach efforts and policy changes.

Recent efforts to improve collection of recyclables

In 2019, ISTC and WTS staff began an analysis of collection practices within buildings with the explicit intent to increase the capture of source-separated recyclables. TAP staff shadowed building service staff to identify current practices and opportunities for improvement. The processes for handling waste and recyclables for typical academic and residential buildings were mapped out, including movement of waste materials from the building to dumpsters, and ultimately to the WTS. TAP staff also worked with F&S to document (in terms of current deployment and unused inventory) the number and variety of landfill and recyclable collection bins found in buildings across campus.

Examples of the variety in size, color and signage of older collection bins on campus.
Examples of previous generations of bins and associated signage found on campus.

This information allowed TAP to make various recommendations to UI F&S related to:

  • building construction and renovation standards for recycling space allocation;
  • collection container allocation, placement, and related training for Building Service Workers (BSW);
  • updating collection containers to improve clarity and consistency across campus;
  • improved signage for clarity and consistent messaging;
  • use of bin liners and existing dumpsters to streamline material flows to, and separation at, the WTS; and
  • a campus-wide recycling campaign.

TAP is currently working with F&S on implementation of these recommendations. At the end of 2019, new collection containers were identified which would collocate landfill (trash) bins and bins for the two types of recycling streams on campus—mixed paper and aluminum cans plus bottles. The new collections containers use color-coding to distinguish the different streams—black for landfill, green for the mixed paper stream, and blue for the combined aluminum cans and bottles. Matching directional signage featuring pictures of example materials appropriate for each waste stream attaches to the back of the bins to assist with proper source separation. A URL for more information on campus recycling is also prominent on the bin signs. Images on the container access doors (for emptying the bins) reinforce proper placement of materials. The containers are themselves constructed from at least 1000 recycled plastic milk jugs, reinforcing the importance of not only recycling but  “closing the loop” by using products made from recycled materials.

New collection bin station with sections for landfill, mixed paper, and aluminum cans plus bottles
New collection containers being deployed on UI campus.

105 containers have been deployed over 30 buildings, beginning primarily in first-floor hallways. Additional containers are being obtained and deployed to locations keeping factors such as building occupancy and status of currently existing collection infrastructure in mind. F&S sees the deployment of the new containers as a key factor in raising awareness of recycling opportunities and processes on campus, as well as combating persistent misconceptions about campus recycling practices.

The new collection containers and implementation of other recommendations made by ISTC’s TAP not only foster achievement of campus iCAP goals but also relate to the recently released F&S Strategic Plan 2019-2023, which includes key performance indicators for diverting waste from landfill in its “Lead in Energy Management and Sustainability” section.

For further information

Biochar project set to improve ag sustainability

By Lisa Sheppard

A newly developed system in the lab could become a boon for farmers in the field. Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) scientist Wei Zheng and colleagues are creating a designer carbon-based biochar that captures phosphorus from tile drain runoff water and recycles it in soils to improve crop growth.

Zheng hypothesizes that this is a win-win strategy that will lead to increased crop yields and less nutrient runoff into water from agricultural fields.

Fertilizer phosphorus applied for plant growth tends to dissolve and leach out through field tile lines, so it promotes algae growth in nearby waterways. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) appear in lakes in the summer and die off once the growing season ends, contributing to oxygen-depleted waters, which result in fish kills and other adverse effects on aquatic life.

The yearly HAB prompted development of Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which aims to reduce phosphorus in Illinois waters by 25 percent by 2025.

A sustainable, novel approach

Zheng and his colleagues at the University of Illinois (U of I), the Illinois Farm Bureau, and other groups believe their strategy will address this problem. By installing a bioreactor in the field with a biochar-sorption filter, water that runs through the tile system is filtered to remove nutrients before it reaches lakes and streams.

The filter holds biochar—a biomass product that looks like charcoal and is made mostly of carbon with high calcium and magnesium—which traps fertilizer nutrients. The biomass is made into small pellets that won’t block water flow.

In the lab, Zheng is studying different types of designer biochars made from sawdust, grasses, or crop residue pretreated with lime sludge, for example, to find the one that is the most effective in capturing phosphorus.

“We have generated some designer biochars that have extremely high capacities for holding dissolved phosphorus,” Zheng said. “Our previous studies have shown that biochar can not only strongly adsorb nutrients such as phosphorus, but also has a high sorption capacity for other contaminants, such as pesticides and antibiotics.”

This year, Zheng and his collaborators will scale up their technology to develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel system for a field trial on a commercial farm in Fulton County. In the second year of the project, the team will establish a bioreactor system that is able to treat drainage water received from a 12-acre field. Water testing will confirm how successful the system is at reducing phosphorous runoff.

An additional part of the project, also slated for next year, is to remove biochar pellets from the channel after fertilizer season and apply the phosphorus-captured biochars to the fields where they will slowly release phosphorus and other nutrients into the soil. As a result, producers can keep fertilizer costs down and increase crop yields when applying the biochar pellets at optimal times in the growing season.

“The goal in adopting this technique is to keep applied phosphorus in the agricultural loop and prevent it from leaching into waterways,” Zheng said.

Benefits of a research team-organization collaboration

Wei Zheng demonstrates his bioreactor at Fulton County Field Day in July 2019.
Wei Zheng demonstrates his bioreactor to local farmers at Fulton County Field Day in July 2019.

Illinois Farm Bureau is involved in this project at the state and Fulton County level to foster interactions between farmers and U of I researchers. Their participation helps to ensure that the research is focused on applicable, realistic practices for Illinois farmers, according to Lauren Lurkins of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau helps identify producers who are willing to participate in research and in funding and outreach opportunities, such as field days.

“Research including Wei’s can help to add practices to or update the science behind existing practices in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy,” Lurkins said. “PRI has a lot of researchers and resources that our farmers utilize. They cover everything from groundwater for rural area consumption to weather monitoring, which are all important to agriculture.”

Results from the project are expected in 2023. It is funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council.

In late 2019, Zheng was appointed Vice Leader of the American Society of Agronomy’s Biochar Committee for his research in various projects on biochar. Several project descriptions are available, including: Using Biochar as a Soil Amendment for Sustainable Agriculture,  Sorption Properties of Greenwaste Biochar for Two Triazine Pesticides, and Carbon Sequestration Using Biochar.

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Media contacts: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276, weizheng@illinois.edu; Lauren Lurkins, llurkins@ilfb.org; Prairie Research Institute Communications Team, news@prairie.illinois.edu

New publication: Salvage Yard Environmental Guidebook and Self-Audit Checklist

ISTC’s  Salvage Yard Environmental Guidebook and Self-Audit Checklist helps salvage yard operators better understand the environmental issues, comply with state and federal environmental regulations, and implement best management practices to minimize risks and liabilities.

The manual details best management practices for safely managing all types of waste found in salvage yards, including spent air bags and lithium-ion batteries, as well as pollution prevention options.

If you operate a salvage yard and would like assistance with improving your environmental performance and bottom line, contact our technical assistance program.

ISTC delivers Contaminants of Emerging Concern Report to Illinois General Assembly

In 2018, Illinois’ governor signed House Bill IL-HB5741, which amended the University of Illinois Scientific Surveys Act. The bill directed the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) to conduct a scientific literature review of contaminants of emerging concern in wastewater treatment plant effluent. It also requested that PRI compile a listing of the specific actions recommended by various state and federal agencies to address the environmental or public health concerns associated with these chemicals.

The final report was filed with the General Assembly earlier this week. It reviews the current state of scientific knowledge about contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), discusses concentrations of CEC in WWTPs, and reviews existing treatment technologies and U.S. federal and state laws.

The report is available in IDEALS.

ISTC scientists visit the UK to collaborate on emerging contaminant research

ISTC researchers John Scott, Beth Meschewski, and Lee Green traveled to the United Kingdom (UK) during the first week of February to discuss emerging contaminant issues with their international collaborators.

people sitting around a table in a small meeting room having a lively discussionISTC is one of six universities/organizations from U.S., UK, and France in an international working group called the International Freshwater Microplastics Network to reduce microplastics pollution in freshwater environments. The group met February 4-5, 2020, in a retreat meeting house on the campus of the University of Birmingham, UK. They shared information about recent projects, and then discussed the future of microplastics research.

The group agreed that writing yet another review paper on the status of microplastics in the environment and the research being done was NOT an effective strategy. Instead, they proposed several concrete research ideas, settling on pooling individually collected microplastics data to help develop more robust contamination models for both local and global scenarios. However, most studies report number of particles per volume of water sampled, but current models require an input of mass of plastic per unit volume. To address this issue, the group also wants to standardize the methods used for collection, analysis, and reporting.

While at U of Birmingham, they met with other colleagues to discuss methods development for the detection of various emerging contaminants. They are particularly interested in how emerging contaminants are taken up, transported, and re-released by microplastics.

The three ISTC scientists also visited the University of Plymouth to meet with a colleague working on marine plastic and additives associated with plastics. The Plymouth research group created a display board of 18 materials collected on beaches in the UK, only two of which were natural materials. The remainder were all plastic “rocks” that look very much like natural rocks. ISTC scientists found it difficult to identify two natural rocks just by looking at them. However, there was an obvious weight difference between similarly sized plastic and natural rocks once they picked them up.

grid of 16 objects on white paper labeled with "pyroplastics (-2)" starting from the top left, the two natural rocks are in position 2 across and 2 down. the other is in three down 5 across.
Grid of plastic “rocks” found by research group at U of Plymouth, UK. Only two are natural rocks (circled in red).

The ISTC team and the leader of the Plymouth research group spent some time analyzing black plastics by X-ray fluorescence. This method of analysis can determine the bulk elemental composition of these materials down to the part-per-million (ppm) range. Many of the samples tested contained very high concentrations (in the percent level) of bromine and antimony. If these two elements are present in plastics, it may indicate that the material was sourced  from electronic waste. ISTC researchers collected several of these black researchers around a small table looking at a laptop display of XRF instrament readings.plastics from the U of Plymouth group to analyze them for rare earth and precious metals. The rare earth and precious metals may be present at low concentrations (ppt-ppb) in the plastics if they were sourced from electronic waste. Black plastic is increasingly used in a wide range of products that can include electronics, food containers, packaging, construction materials, textiles, and so on. Many of the metals and additives associated with these materials are toxic to humans, so recycling of these plastics has the potential to increase human exposure to pollutants.

The ISTC team believes that the four new research projects discussed during the trip will make a significant impact in reducing emerging contaminants pollution at the international level.

ISTC researchers develop greener biofuels process

tall green grass

Kirtika Kohli and BK Sharma have been busy in the lab creating a greener delignification method for biofuels refinery processes. Many see biofuels as a viable alternative to fossil fuels because they are renewable and can reduce carbon emissions through plant growth. However, biomass needs to be processed before it can be converted to biofuels.

Lignin is a substance found in plants that makes them rigid and woody. Lignin helps plants resist rotting, so biomass harvested for biofuels must undergo a pre-treatment process to break down the lignin. Once lignin is removed, the remaining biomass could be easily converted to monomeric sugars, which can  be converted biochemically into biofuels and other components in a biorefinery. With some additional refinement, the extracted lignin has the potential to be used in other applications in biofuels, biolubricants, polymers, binders, and biochemicals.

Current delignification processes have limited industrial applications because of their high costs, toxicity, and inability to recycle/reuse the chemicals used in the process. The team’s new method is more efficient, economic, and less toxic than current processes. It should ease operation/maintenance requirements and the need for special equipment as well as increase cost-effectiveness and recyclability. Their process is able to extract 85-88% of the lignin from Birchwood and Miscanthus (the two biomasses tested).

The team also developed a new lignin quantification method. The delignification process developed dissolves lignin into a green solvent that can be directly used for the quantification using a UV-Vis spectrophotometer. This new method is easier and more accurate than older lignin quantification methods, which were based on weight of the lignin yields that resulted in rough estimates.

Their paper is in-press and available online in Bioresource Technology: Effective Delignification of Lignocellulosic Biomass by Microwave Assisted Deep Eutectic Solvents.