New Year’s Reflections and Resolutions

The new year is a good time to reflect on the previous year’s accomplishments, as well as make plans for the year ahead. Last year was a successful one for ISTC’s researchers. They were awarded five out of the five grants they submitted to Department of Energy, as well as one from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. They include:

  • Researchers Nandakishore Rajagopalan and Kevin OBrien’s effort to examine the scalability of Rajagopalan’s patented waste heat coupled forward osmosis (FO)-based water treatment system, Aquapod©, to improve wastewater quality and reduce water usage in a coal-fired +500 megawatt power plant.
  • A public-private partnership that demonstrates the feasibility of producing animal feed and/or biofuels at a significantly lower cost. The project combines technologies for bio-energy production that have been developed at ISTC in collaboration with HeliosNRG, headquartered in East Amherst, NY.
  • A large pilot scale test of technology to remove CO2 from power plant flue emissions. ISTC partnered with two multinational companies, Linde and BASF, to develop a new solvent based system to capture CO2 from power plants. They have partnered with Affiliated Engineers Inc. (AEI) and Affiliated Construction Services (ACS), which have extensive experience with designing and building systems for power plant applications. The team led by ISTC received $850,000 in spring 2018 for Phase I of the pilot testing project, which involves designing a 10 MW capture system that would be retrofitted to a central Illinois power plant. The group plans to compete for subsequent phases, which could lead to the development of a supply chain for captured CO2.
  • Advancing carbon capture absorption technology from lab to bench scale. ISTC has been assisting with an Illinois State Geological Survey lab-scale project to develop a biphasic CO2 absorption process (BiCAP) with multiple stages of liquid-liquid solvent phase separation, which increases carbon capture capacity. ISGS and ISTC have received an additional $3 million to conduct a three-year bench scale (40 KWe) study of their BiCAP technology.
  • Validating two innovative technologies that have the potential to significantly reduce flue gas aerosol concentrations from large-scale coal-fired power production. The technologies will be tested at the University of Illinois Abbott Power Plant. The results will be used as a benchmark for comparing their performance and cost to those of existing options.
  • An expansion of on-going research being conducted by John Scott and his team. Through funding from the Hazardous Waste Research Fund and the Annis Water Resource Institute at Grand Valley State University, they are studying the effects of microplastic type and deployment time in Lake Muskegon sediments and the water column on sorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to microplastic particles. The investigation includes legacy contaminants like chlorinated pesticides, polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). New funds from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant will allow the team to broaden their scope to study the role of microplastics as a carrier of PFAS in water and sediment.

Read more about these and other projects in ISTC’s 2018 annual report. If you’re looking for suggestions on making this year more sustainable, check out some of our blog posts from 2018.

Sustainable Holidays

We’re halfway through December and deep into the holiday season. At this time of year, people tend to focus on how much stuff they can buy. Sustainability doesn’t have to take a back seat though. Check out this post on rethinking the holidays or this fact sheet for more info on how to have a more sustainable holiday season.

Some key tips include:

  • Reduce —  Buy only what you need. When you do need to purchase something, look for recycled content or buy used.
  • Buy local food —  When possible, support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint by buying local food.
  • Send E-cardsCommunicating the holiday spirit should not be at the price of trees. Instead, consider sending e-cards, which are readily available on the web. If you receive greeting cards, repurpose them as gift tags on your holiday packages.
  • Eco-Friendly gift wrapping — Consider wrapping gifts in recycled material like a newspaper or using something that can be reused, like thin cloth. You can also reuse gift bags that you’ve received from others.

Giving Tuesday

After the conspicuous consumption messages of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday provides an opportunity to think about how we can give back.  Vox has some tips to help you choose which charities to support. Resources like Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and GuideStar can help you determine how your money gets spent.

ISTC is working to combat the effects of consumerism by coming up with solutions to some of the world’s greatest environmental problems. This important work would not be possible without generous support from our funding organizations and supporters like you. Thank you!

America Recycles Day

November 15th marks America Recycles Day. The event was created to celebrate and prioritize recycling in America. This year Keep America Beautiful and America Recycles Day are pairing together to celebrate the day and are asking people to:

  • pledge to learn about recycling in their communities,
  • act by reducing the amount of waste they produce and recycling what they do, and
  • share their efforts with their family and friends.

Thousands of people and organizations are holding events for the day across the country. Their efforts each year seem to be working as the national recycling rate has increased over the past 30 years, leaving the current recycling rate at 34%.

ISTC prioritizes recycling in many of its activities. It is evident in the research and technical assistance they conduct. They are looking for ways to recycle and reuse everything from solar panels and waste plastics to wastewater. ISTC’s Zero Waste Illinois and technical assistance programs conduct waste audits and other services for Illinois business and organizations of all sizes to help them switch to less toxic chemicals, divert materials from the landfill, and reduce water use.

Recycling is usually discussed in relation to the three Rs. Reduce consumption, reuse what you can’t reduce and, recycle what you can’t reduce or reuse. The fourth R is rethink. Consider ways to improve your environmental footprint, starting with decreasing consumption. . Make every day America Recycles Day.

World Science Day for Peace and Development

The phrase “human rights” usually brings to mind things like, the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to work and education. The right to participate in and benefit from science isn’t something that usually comes to mind.

November 10th marks the World Science Day for Peace and Development, which highlights the important role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues. It also underlines the importance and relevance of science in our daily lives. This year’s theme, “Science is a Human Right”, celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art.27) and the Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers.

By focusing on this theme, UNESCO aims to spark a global conversation about ways to improve access to and the benefits of science, in order to advance sustainable development and conserve Earth’s limited resources. They call on businesses, governments, civil society, and scientists to fully embrace the values of responsible and ethical science.                   

UNESCO’s Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, passed in 2017, states that member states should, “contribute constructively to the fabric of science, culture and education, and the promotion of science and innovation in their own country… [and] promote access to research results and engage in the sharing of scientific data between researchers, and to policy-makers, and to the public wherever possible, while being mindful of existing rights.”

ISTC fulfills these recommendations through its publicly funded research and engagement efforts. From conducting research on microplastics in the environment to finding novel uses for carbon dioxide captured from power plants, ISTC researchers make significant contributions to their fields of research. Through the Illinois Sustainability Awards, the Center highlights projects by businesses and organizations that improve sustainability in Illinois. The Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference brings together researchers from all over the United States and even other countries to share their research and work toward solutions that can have an international impact.

Although UNESCO and ISTC approach the issue from different perspectives, both are working toward the same goal of a better world for everyone. Use today to celebrate the ways that science can make a difference and consider ways that you can too.

Wake Up and Smell The Sustainability

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Coffee has a rich history rooted in cultures around the world. International Coffee Day, Saturday, September 29th, celebrates coffee and its history, which is a good time to also consider its sustainability.

The United States is the biggest consumer of coffee, which is the most traded  commodity in the world after oil. Globally, people drink more than 600 billion cups of coffee every year.

Coffee growing has a large environmental impact. Coffee has been reported to have a water footprint of 140 liters per cup. This includes all of the water required to bring the product to market.

Many growers adopted the sun grown method of growing coffee in the late 1970’s to expedite the growing process. This led to extreme deforestation and biodiversity loss. Shade grown coffee is a much more sustainable growing method. It requires little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.

Coffee companies and researchers have recognized the problem and are making changes. Counter Culture Coffee and Think Coffee are two examples of businesses that have embraced sustainability.

Counter Culture Coffee makes detailed contracts with each of their partners that sets specific goals for quality and sustainability. Think Coffee believes that sustainability starts with people. They have invested in housing reconstruction in Colombia, feminine hygiene in Ethiopia, or clean water access in Nicaragua.

At ISTC, Drs. Wei Zheng, Kishore Rajagopalan, and B.K. Sharma along with other colleagues from the University of Illinois and the United States Department of Agriculture found a way to use every part of spent coffee grounds by using them to make biodiesel, bio-oil, and biochar. Transforming coffee waste into usable products is a great way to minimize the environmental impact. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering published the research results in 2013.

Climate change is also becoming an increasing threat to coffee production because coffee is grown in very specific conditions. Climate change is causing the once ideal temperature and precipitation levels in the tropics to fluctuate dramatically. It is also causing drought, which has led to an increase in the range of diseases that kill insects that pollinate coffee plants. Drought can also lead to soil degradation that can make once fertile land unproductive.

Coffee, like many things we consume every day, has impacts beyond what we see on the surface. Remember the environmental impact each cup has the next time you take a sip. Consider decreasing your consumption or switching to tea, which requires about eight times less water than coffee.

Gender Equality and Sustainability

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote, “Women hold up half the sky”. In addition, women also manage half the soil, carry more than half the water, and raise more than half of the world’s population.Image result for women carrying water

Women’s Equality Day, (August 26) celebrates the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The day also serves as a reminder of how much work still needs to be done. This makes it a perfect time to reflect on women’s role in sustainability, understand the way that women are disproportionately affected by environmental disasters, and improve environmental sustainability by focusing on gender equality.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were established in 2015 to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. They also recognized gender equality as a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Furthermore, the UN 2030 Agenda states, “The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision making at all levels.”Image result for women in science lab

Women play a crucial role in environmental sustainability. They produce 50 percent of agricultural output in Asia and represent nearly 80 percent of the agricultural labor force in parts of Africa. If women had the same access as men to agricultural resources, production would increase by 20-30 percent, and has the potential to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent, according to research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Women face different types of discrimination depending on where they live. This gender disparity has led to ineffective and unsustainable management of ecosystems and resources worldwide. Moving forward, men and women need to be included in decision making, especially with regard to natural resource management. We have come far since the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920, but we still haven’t achieved gender equality. Supporting and empowering the women and girls in your life is a great way to work toward sustainability.  

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.  

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.

Summer Sustainability

Both the weather and the planet are heating up. We can’t do much about the current temperature, but there are things we can do to cool down the planet. Summer is the perfect time to develop new habits. Below is a list of sustainability tips and ideas to help you on your sustainable journey this summer that will hopefully last long after.

Minimize Meat

Reducing your meat consumption is one of the best ways to live a more sustainable life. Meat’s carbon footprint is much higher than that of plant-based foods. Summer is fresh fruit and vegetable season, so it’s a great time to start making them a feature on your plate. Consider making Meatless Mondays a habit.

Eat Farm Fresh Food

Supporting local farmers markets is good for the local economy and for the environment. Local food travels a shorter distance between the farm and your plate than food sold in the average grocery store. Buying from local producers also helps the local economy by keeping your dollars in the community. Both Champaign and Urbana hold farmers markets every week during the summer. The Sustainable Student Farm also holds a farm stand on the quad every Thursday which is a great option if you live on campus and don’t want to travel far.  

Bring a (reusable) Bottle

Staying hydrated in the summer is important, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the planet. Each day, people in the U.S. throw away more than 60 million plastic water bottles, most of which end up in landfills or as litter in America’s streets, parks, and waterways.

Valuable Vacations

Vacations are a huge part of summer for most people. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency offers some great tips for greening your travel.

Summer Cleaning

Although spring is traditionally when people deep clean, summer is also a great time to sort through your house and decide which things you no longer need. You can take old or broken electronics to the Illini Gadget Garage, which is an organization that works to keep electronic waste from entering landfills by offering guided repair sessions. For items you no longer want, get together with some of your neighbors and have a yard sale. Also, consider donating or recycling what you don’t need.

Ditch the Car, Ride a Bike

As the weather warms, switching out your car for a bike or a walk is a great way to significantly reduce your carbon footprint and get some exercise at the same time.

Volunteer at Sustainable Places

If you’re looking to get more directly involved in sustainability efforts but don’t know where to begin, try volunteering at different places to see what you are most interested in. There are a variety of volunteer opportunities in Champaign and Urbana. You can volunteer to help out at either of the local farmer’s markets, or if you’re interested in the process of growing food, you can volunteer at local farms like Sola Gratia, Prosperity Gardens, or the Student Sustainable Farm. There are also opportunities to volunteer at thrift stores like Courage Connections that sell recycled clothing and work to reduce the amount of textile waste that ends up in landfills every year.

For more information on living a greener life, visit the Green Living LibGuide. Looking for information on other sustainability topics? See ISTC’s full list of guides to sustainability by topic.