ISTC’s annual report for the period July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018 is now available. The report features ISTC’s technical and research efforts during the period. Highlights include ISTC’s success with winning awards for all five of the DOE grant applications that our researchers submitted in fall 2017. The report also details new initiatives such as solar panel recycling and free assessments for wastewater treatment plants to reduce operating costs. With these efforts, ISTC continues to advance sustainability in Illinois and beyond. Check out the report for more details.
The Illinois governor recently signed House Bill IL-HB5741 that amends the University of Illinois Scientific Surveys Act. The new section 21 asks the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), which was established under the Scientific Surveys Act in 2008, to conduct a scientific literature review of chemicals identified in wastewater treatment plant effluents that are recognized as contaminants of emerging concern. It also requests 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 the chemicals. PRI will provide its impartial report to the General Assembly by June 30, 2020.
Because of its long history of pollution prevention expertise, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute, will take the lead on this new effort. ISTC researchers have studied a variety of inorganic and organic environmental contaminants as well as developed methods for waste and pollution prevention. Recently much of their water quality research and public engagement activities have focused on chemicals of emerging concern in wastewater, surface water, and groundwater. ISTC staff members Nancy Holm, Laura Barnes, and Elizabeth Meschewski will be compiling the report.
Although the law requests a literature review of contaminants of emerging concern associated with wastewater treatment plant effluent, these contaminants also enter the environment from other sources. These include non-point sources, such as agricultural fields, and other point sources, such as large animal feeding operations, septic systems, and industrial operations.
WRITTEN BY: Margaret Golden, ISTC staff
When we think of chemicals that could be on our food, we usually think of the pesticides that are used to eliminate pests. We rarely think of the cookware that we use to prepare it. Maybe we should start.
One of the most common ways that people come in contact with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) is through nonstick cookware. PFASs are a collection of man-made chemical compounds that include PFOA, PFOS, and newer GenX chemicals. They were created in the mid-twentieth century and have been used in manufacturing of various products ever since. They’re popular because they don’t degrade and can make products stain-resistant, waterproof, or non-stick. Because of their popularity, they have managed to make their way into water systems and living organisms through leaching and contamination. In addition to cookware, you can find PFASs in a variety of food packaging, household products, clothing items, fire-fighting foams, industrial waste, and drinking water. They also accumulate in the tissue of living organisms, including humans.
The prevalence of PFASs in the environment is a concern because they have been proven to harm both the environment and human health. PFASs are stable molecules, which make them resistant to most treatment methods. This resistance to breakdown means they stay in any living organisms that they come in contact with and can accumulate in the body over time. Additional research has shown that these chemicals can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects, which include immune system deficiencies, low infant birth weights, cancer, thyroid hormone distribution, developmental and liver problems, and potentially many more. Water contamination specifically is becoming a large concern. Drinking water in two Detroit suburbs has tested positive for PFAS contamination. PFASs also have been detected in several other of Michigan’s drinking water sources such as waterways and lakes. It is clear that PFAS are increasingly becoming more of a problem for our health and the environment.
Thanks to the PFOA Stewardship program, most PFASs production has been phased out in the United States. However, people can still come in contact with them through imported goods because they are not yet banned internationally. In addition, companies in the U.S. are still producing next generation PFASs, called GenX. These compounds are found in firefighting foams and food packaging. Because of that, further research on these chemicals is being done all over the country and world.
The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) has teamed up with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the University of California at Riverside to combat this issue and work toward a solution. Researchers from each university are currently investigating the effects of cobalt (Co)-catalyzed defluorination to degrade PFASs. ISTC is working to connect the PFAS research community and increase public awareness through seminars and conferences surrounding research findings.
The first conference will take place in the beginning of June. ISTC will be collaborating with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to hold the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference. Be sure to mark your calendars and register online if you’re interested. One speaker to specifically look forward to is Rainer Lohmann, a professor of Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, who will be doing a keynote presentation on PFASs. With this conference and series of seminars, ISTC hopes to help eliminate the use of PFASs and help to find more sustainable replacements.
WRITTEN BY: Katherine Gardiner, ISTC staff
Plastic waste is one of the leading environmental concerns in the world today.
Many times, consumers use a plastic product just once before throwing it away. We might only see it for a short time – a plastic shopping bag, for example – but that plastic bag can sit in a landfill for decades before it is broken down completely.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, areas of floating plastic pieces and microplastics (<5mm) in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, is estimated to be three times the size of France. Dianna Parker of the NOAA Marine Debris Program insists that cleaning up the garbage patch isn’t enough. She explains, “until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it’s just going to keep congregating in these areas.”
What if there was a way to stop plastic from filling up our landfills and polluting our waterways?
ISTC researchers B.K. Sharma and Kishore Rajagopalan worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to convert plastic bags into fuel.
The team collected high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags from local shops and used a pyrolysis unit to turn them into plastic crude oil (PCO). After distilling the PCO, analyzing the resulting fuels, and adding antioxidants, the products met nearly all specifications of the conventional diesel standards.
In fact, the researchers’ HDPE-derived fuels beat out conventional petroleum diesel when it came to the fuel’s lubricity and derived cetane number, which is an indicator of the combustion speed. The team concluded that their plastic-based fuel could be blended safely and efficiently with petroleum diesel fuel, reducing the amount of plastic ending up in landfills or out into the environment while also creating something valuable from the waste plastic.
More recently, ISTC researchers B.K. Sharma and Sriraam Chandrasekaran developed the first energy-efficient and environmentally friendly process to separate mixed polymers in waste plastics, allowing the waste plastic to be recycled into new, high-quality plastic products.
Single polymer plastics, such as water bottles, are easy to recycle because they are made with a uniform plastic. Sharma explained that products that are made of more complex polymer blends, such as cellphone cases, “pile up at recycling centers and eventually end up being incinerated or sent to landfills” due to the lack of safe and efficient ways to recycle them.
Currently, the most efficient method for this process involves a chemical called DCM that releases carcinogenic vapors in conditions close to room temperature. The method created by Sharma and Chandrasekaran uses a solvent called NMP, which Chandrasekaran assured, “will only release vapors when heated to 180 degrees Celsius, far above the temperature needed to dissolve the polymers.”
ISTC isn’t the only organization committed to reducing plastic waste.
Sanjeev Das, Global Packaging Director at Unilever, announced that through a partnership with Ioniqa, a start-up company in the Netherlands, they have found a way to recycle any kind of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic. By using this new technology, they are able to break down the PET plastic to the molecular level, remove any colors or impurities, and turn it back into clear food-grade PET plastic.
While not available yet, Das estimates the technology could be ready for widespread use by the third quarter of 2019. He believes this technology can revolutionize the plastic recycling industry. By bringing value to PET waste, people and communities all over the world will be motivated to collect plastic, creating a circular economy.
In a commitment to sustainability, Nestle pledged to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Nestle CEO Mark Schneider stated, “plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Tackling it requires a collective approach.”
There are smaller steps companies can take to reduce plastic waste and encourage sustainable habits. Coffee giant Starbucks offers a discount to customers who bring in reusable mugs and has been doing so since 1985. Urbana-Champaign coffee chain Espresso Royale offers a similar discount. Retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s offer discounts for bringing in your own reusable shopping bags.
While the best option for eliminating plastic waste is to reduce our reliance on single use products, plastic use is so heavily engrained in our culture that we might never phase it out completely. These scientific advances in plastic recycling pave the way for a future where there is minimal, if any, plastic waste.
WRITTEN BY: Lisa Sheppard, PRI staff, and Nancy Holm, ISTC staff
Research is progressing on a novel biphasic solvent absorption method that holds promise as an innovative, cost-saving alternative to the conventional CO2 capture process in power plants. ISTC researchers have been assisting the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) on a lab-scale (10KWe) project developing a biphasic CO2 absorption process (BiCAP) with multiple stages of liquid-liquid solvent phase separation, which improves CO2 absorption kinetics and increases the carbon capture capacity.
“And, more importantly,” explained Wei Zheng, senior research chemist at ISTC who is working on the project, “this new technology can also significantly reduce both the energy use and equipment cost for CO2 capture compared to the conventional amine-based process.”
The lab-scale research is being led by ISGS, supported by a grant from U.S Department of Energy (DOE).
Currently, the team has evaluated the corrosive properties of solvents on carbon and stainless steel, which are main materials used for CO2 absorbers and strippers. “Corrosion is not a concern,” said ISTC senior research engineer Brajendra Sharma. “We’re moving forward with the project and are on track with all our milestones.”
Now the research efforts are ready for the next step. Recently U.S. DOE announced $3M of additional funding for ISGS and ISTC to conduct a three-year bench-scale (40KWe) study of their BiCAP technology.
The primary goal of this new project is to leverage the BiCAP process and validate its technical advantages through a fully-integrated bench-scale testing in a relevant flue gas environment. The proposed technology is aimed at achieving a CO2 capture cost of $30/tonne and >95% CO2 purity to meet DOE’s Transformational CO2 Capture goals.
WRITTEN BY: Katherine Gardiner, ISTC staff
Is your medicine cabinet at home filled with old medications or prescription drugs you no longer use? You’re not alone. But how do we dispose of these medicines safely?
Many Americans find themselves in the exact situation every year and either flush the pills down the toilet or hang onto them, unsure if they may be useful in the future. However, the Illinois EPA warns against flushing drugs.They can get into the environment, harm wildlife and even pose challenges for drinking water treatment. And keeping medicines you no longer need can pose an unnecessary risk for accidental poisoning and abuse by children, teens, pets, and elderly, especially when stored in an easily accessible place like a family medicine cabinet or drawer.
In an interview with Environmental Leader, Walgreens’ senior vice president of pharmacy and healthcare, Rick Gates, acknowledged the growing concern over improper disposal and storage of medicines.
The best way to dispose of leftover and unwanted medications is to bring them to a medicine collection site. There are many located within Illinois, mostly in local law enforcement buildings. Accepted items at permanent collection boxes include prescription medications, all over-the-counter (OTC) medications, pet medications, vitamins and supplements, medicated ointments, creams, lotions, and oils, and liquid medication stored in leak-proof containers.
After the medications are deposited in the drop boxes, they are taken to an incineration facility to be destroyed. This process is more environmentally safe than other disposal methods and is “highly regulated” by the EPA.
In 2013, ISTC got involved in a new program within Champaign County to collect unwanted and old drugs. Goals of the program are to limit accidental poisonings of children and pets, prevent drug abuse, and reduce environmental impacts from improper disposal of medicines. Within Champaign-Urbana, you can now drop off unwanted medications at 3 locations – the police department lobbies in Champaign, Urbana, and on campus. These drop boxes are accessible 24 hours, seven days a week.
Walgreens and other pharmacies are also offering take-back programs to help their customers in the disposal process. Gates stated, “We’ve collected more than 155 tons of unwanted medication in first 18 months of the program, [which] goes to prove that there is a need in the marketplace.”
Twice per year, the U.S. DEA participates in the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, with the goal to help Americans dispose of potentially harmful prescription drugs and, ultimately, to reduce addiction and overdose deaths related to opioids. During the event last October, Americans returned a record of 456 tons of unwanted medications to the DEA and their local partners. The next event will take place on April 28, 2018.
If neither a permanent drop box nor take-back event are available in your area, you can purchase postage-paid mail-back envelopes for medicine, which are now available at many pharmacies. You can also dispose of the medicine in the trash if you follow Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s recommended tips.
Medicines that have expired, changed color, or have a “funny” smell should not be used and should be taken to a medicine collection site.
Prescription and OTC drugs, along with most items in your medicine cabinet, are considered Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs). The U.S. EPA has identified PPCPs as emerging contaminants of concern because the extent of these contaminants’ impact on the environment is still unknown.
To help reduce impacts of PPCPs and other emerging contaminants on the environment, ISTC is co-organizing a conference on Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment, along with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The conference is June 5-6, 2018, and will feature presentations and posters on the latest in emerging contaminants research, education, and policies. Registration opens in March. The call for oral presentation abstracts is open until March 12 and the poster presentations call is open until April 16.
As we continue to learn more about the effects of PPCPs in our environment, we should all do our part to ensure both safe use and safe disposal of medicines and other PPCPs.
WRITTEN BY: Katherine Gardiner, ISTC staff
Whenever you think of sustainability, the Olympic Games, with all its grandeur and flashy ceremonies, probably is not the first event that comes to mind. All it takes is a second look, though, and you’ll see that sustainability is central to the Olympics.
This year, the Olympics are being held in PyeongChang, South Korea. The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic Games (POCOG) has integrated sustainability into all stages of its Games – from construction of the venues, to the athletes’ and fans’ experiences and the legacy the Games will leave.
There are 92 countries and over 2,900 athletes participating in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, up from 88 nations in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. That is a lot of people and it is not even counting the enthusiastic fans pouring in from each nation.
It can be a challenge to host so many travelers at once, knowing they will only stay temporarily. POCOG has managed this by constructing an Olympic Village to accommodate the athletes and coaches, and once the Games are over, the Village will be used as condominiums. All the condo units were sold months before the Olympics even started, guaranteeing the Village will be in use long after the athletes have left the city.
The Olympic-sized stadiums have also been developed with green infrastructure and eventual repurposing in mind. POCOG constructed all six new venues to conform to South Korea’s green energy certification standards, G-SEED. The venues utilize solar, wind, and geothermal energy and POCOG repurposed land previously used as a landfill to build the Ice Hockey Arena. After the Games, the arenas will be used for multipurpose sports complexes to accommodate professional athletic training as well as culture, leisure, and sports activities for the public.
POCOG’s sustainability report outlines a goal to go beyond “zero emissions” and accomplish “O2 Plus” effects through “low-carbon operations and resource circulation.” As of September 2017, 1.33 million tons of greenhouse gases were reduced or offset. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mass transit transportation has been encouraged. Personal vehicles cannot enter the venues, which encourages fans to park off-site and ride the shuttle. The high-speed railway was also built to connect Incheon International Airport in Seoul to the venues in PyeongChang and Gangneung. Staff will use electric cars and hydrogen-powered cars during the Games. As a result, charging stations have been installed, which POCOG hopes will encourage locals to use electric cars.
To further reduce carbon emissions, POCOG is locally sourcing much of their food and introducing an electronic meal voucher system for Olympic staff for the first time in Olympic history, with the intent to prepare exactly the amount of food needed and avoid food waste.
POCOG even accounted for stewardship of nature in their planning. A combined Men’s and Women’s alpine ski course has been implemented for the first time in the Winter Olympics to reduce estimated forest impact. Plants, seeds, and topsoil have been collected to assist in the restoration process post-Games, and 174 hectares of forest have been pledged to be restored. A project to repopulate endangered species in the area has been implemented to maintain biodiversity, and nine additional forests have been designated as protected since 2013.
The PyeongChang Olympics was awarded ISO 20121 certification to recognize its work system that “minimizes burden on local communities while maximizing positive impacts,” marking a first for the Winter Olympics and third for Olympic Games after London 2012 and Rio 2016.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has aligned itself with POCOG’s vision for a sustainable Olympics. Olympic Agenda 2020 is made up of three pillars – credibility, youth, and sustainability. In fact, the field of sports was officially recognized as an “important enabler” of sustainable development by the United Nations in 2015 and is included in the UN’s Agenda 2030.
While South Korea doesn’t know its final medal count yet, PyeongChang has definitely earned gold in being green.
Ideas for “Revitalizing Plastics Recycling” will be the topic for a symposium hosted by the Illinois Recycling Association and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the I Hotel and Conference Center on the University of Illinois campus from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12.
Plastic production has risen steeply decade upon decade in the United States, primarily for use in packaging, and as a cheap, tough, lightweight substitute for glass and metal.
Ironically glass and metal are far more economical to recycle, so used plastic has come to blight the environment. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that the U.S. recycled only nine percent of its post-consumer plastic in 2012. The program also reports that up to 43 percent of waste plastic finds its way into landfills. That leaves a lot of plastic unaccounted for.
Factors that make plastic easy or hard to recycle depends largely on logistics in the local recycling market, according to B.K. Sharma, senior research scientist at ISTC, a division of the Prairie Research Institute, and one of the presenters at the symposium.
Take polyethylene, for instance, which comes in two varieties – high density or low density, according to Sharma. If it is extruded (as in disposable drink bottles) it can usually be economically crushed, handled, and transported. If polyethylene products are molded they are typically too dense and/or brittle for a recycler to profitably manipulate. Expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) is another example of a hard-to-recycle plastic. All volume and no weight, it is expensive to transport and few communities today offer opportunities to recycle it, Sharma explained.
Ken Santowski’s Chicago Logistic Service has been working to provide Styrofoam recycling to citizens of the greater Chicago area. He will speak at the symposium of his company’s success in dealing with that necessary evil.
The symposium will also deal with another scourge of plastic recycling – agricultural plastics. It wraps bales, covers forage, bags silage, covers silo bunkers, and makes farmers more productive in many ways. But once used it doesn’t all go easily into dumpsters and is too lightweight to make much economic sense to conventional recyclers. Tanner Smith, corporate development analyst for Delta Plastics, will discuss dealing with agricultural plastics at the symposium.
Sharma’s lab has approached the problem from a different angle. He has demonstrated how petroleum-derived polymers can be “reverse engineered” right back into gasoline, diesel, and even jet fuel. He has also shown how high-value “fractions” can be recovered from trash that might have ended up in landfills. He will be giving a demonstration at the symposium of the technology which can be used to convert plastics to oil.
The symposium will bring together experts on different aspects of the problem and share solutions on how to improve Illinois’ experience and record of plastic recycling. To register, and for more information about the symposium visit the Illinois Recycling Association’s website.
Rising concerns among environmental scientists over a multitude of contaminants found in water and aquatic life and their impact on human health have prompted ISTC to partner with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant to host an upcoming conference titled, “Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment.” The two-day conference will be packed with many experts, including four keynote presentations by researchers from the U.S.EPA, Loyola University Chicago, USGS, and the National Sea Grant Law Center. The oral presentations will cover a variety of viewpoints, namely research, policy, and education & outreach.
Contaminants of emerging concern, as defined by the USGS, are
“…any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored in the environment but has the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and (or) human health effects.”
In some cases, a contaminant could have been entering the environment for decades or centuries but only recently has been detected or environmental impacts been attributed to that compound. Some of the contaminants that will be discussed at the conference include pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medicines, personal care products, agrichemicals, microplastics, coal-tar sealants, flame retardants, and many more.
Government leaders, policy makers, public health professionals, researchers, environmental organizations, educators, students, and members of the public are all encouraged to attend the conference. It will provide an opportunity for discussion and collaboration with those from a wide range of fields in research, policy, and education & outreach. The conference will be held from May 31 to June 1, 2017, at the I Hotel & Conference Center in Champaign, IL.
Americans landfilled 136 million tons of material in 2014. Food, plastics, and in fact, most of what was landfilled could have been recycled or composted. Of particular concern is the more than four percent of waste classified as ‘other,’ which includes pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.
A recent article, “Pharmaceuticals and Other Chemicals Common in Landfill Waste,” brings light to the fact that rain water filtering through a landfill picks up chemicals and exits the landfill as ‘leachate.’ While treatment of the leachate and NPDES permitting is required, questions about how these chemicals affect the environment still remain.
The USGS sampled 19 landfill leachates before treatment and found 129 different pharmaceutical (prescription and non-prescription), household, and industrial chemicals. The three chemicals detected in 95 percent of the samples were bisphenol A (used in plastics, thermal paper, and epoxy resins; 4 parts per million), DEET (insect repellent; 250 parts per billion), and cotinine (transformation product of nicotine; 50 parts per billion).
In order to help address some of these questions and many more, ISTC is partnering with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) to host the “Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference” on May 31 and June 1, 2017, in Champaign, IL. Conference registration will begin in mid-February. Topics will include research, policy, management, outreach, and education concerning emerging contaminant detection, fate, transport, remediation, prevention, or related areas.