As previously reported on the ISTC blog, the Farm to Food Bank program recently developed six case studies highlighting work with farmers during the 2022 growing season. Each case study includes a summary of the project, as well as lessons learned. Pilot project models included food flowing from farm to food bank, farm to food pantry, and utilizing aggregation sites.
Now the program has released “Illinois Farm to Food Bank Program 2022 Year in Review.” This report outlines all the different pilot projects that occurred in 2022 along with key takeaways. It also details central challenges and opportunities that exist in expanding this statewide program. The report was authored by the ISTC Technical Assistance Program (TAP) Zero Waste Program, in collaboration with Steve Ericson of Feeding Illinois.
The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has a new web presence. You may now find information on TAP at https://go.illinois.edu/techassist.
TAP 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 organizations achieve profitable, sustainable results.
The new website makes it easier to find information on TAP programs, services, and projects. Visitors can sign up for free site visits or learn about fee-for-service opportunities to engage our sustainability experts. Any Illinois organization, business, manufacturing facility, institute of higher learning, government entity, public utility, or institution may request one free site visit (per location) at no cost to the facility.
An article co-authored by ISTC’s John Scott, Wei Zheng, and Nancy Holm is among the top cited research in Groundwater.
“Microplastic Contamination in Karst Groundwater Systems” was a collaborative effort of researchers from ISTC, ISWS, and ISGS. Published in 2019, it was the first to report microplastics in fractured limestone aquifers – a groundwater source that accounts for 25 percent of the global drinking water supply.
Plastic products permeate our environment and over time they break down. The microscopic size of particles, how long they last, and what is associated with them raise health concerns.
Although the health effects are still largely uncertain, recent research at the Illinois Sustainability Technology Center (ISTC) has provided some insight into what happens to plastics once they’re used and thrown away.
Microplastics are everywhere: in what we eat, drink, and breathe, according to ISTC senior chemist John Scott. They’re found in surface water, sediments and soils, air and dust, wildlife, and everywhere else scientists look.
“Plastics don’t ever go away, they just break down to smaller and smaller sizes,” Scott said. “They’re always out there. If I analyze something that doesn’t have microplastics in it, I think there’s something wrong.”
Plastics have been mass-produced since the 1950s, with an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons produced globally. Nearly 80 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills and in the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the plastic waste problem with more shipping and packaging and the worldwide use of single-use products, such as gloves, gowns, and booties.
Since plastics have been engineered to last, the breakdown rates are incredibly long. Nylon fishing line lasts some 600 years, plastic bottles last 400 years, and plastic straws last 200 years.
“A child’s diaper can be around for 400 to 500 years—five to six times the child’s lifespan,” Scott said. “Even if we stopped producing plastics now, because of these legacy products, we would still have a plastic waste problem for many decades.”
What they absorb
Plastics act as sponges, absorbing all kinds of contaminants in the environment. In 2020, Scott and collaborators at the Annis Water Resources Institute submerged samples of different types of plastic for three months in Muskegon Lake in Michigan.
Findings showed that many pollutants such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and even pesticides concentrate on these materials at hundreds of times the background levels.
The group also found a group of chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), can stick to microplastics submerged in lake water. PFASs are human-made chemicals used in products such as non-stick cookware, cleaning supplies, and food packaging. Their stability and water and oil resistance are useful for various products, but the PFASs don’t break down readily in the environment or in humans, causing potential adverse health effects.
Scott’s team also tested PFAS adsorption on plastic in the laboratory, without the presence of organic matter such as biofilms. In the laboratory, the amount of PFASs that was absorbed into the microplastics was small (about 25%), yet the lake-exposed samples showed 600 times more PFASs were attached to the microplastics compared with those in the laboratory tests.
“We found only small concentrations of PFASs, but what was interesting was the discovery that they don’t stick to the plastic,” Scott said. “We believe that they stick to a biofilm of organic material that develops over time on the plastic from the lake environment.”
To understand microplastics and make accurate comparisons of plastic size and concentrations, researchers need to use a standardized method of detection limits. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed a method in 2015, which was designed to measure large plastic debris in surface water and on beaches.
The smallest size detected through this process is 300 micrometers, which does not account for microplastics that are small enough to cross biological membranes.
“We needed to push the detection limits to measure smaller microplastics,” Scott said. “If we use the NOAA method, we’ll underestimate the amount of microplastics in a sample.
In 2020, Scott and Lee Green, ISTC chemist, developed a way to count microplastics down to the size of 20 micrometers, sizes that would have been missed by the NOAA standard.
Another challenge was to find a standardized way to report findings. Estimating the number of plastic particles per liter wasn’t accurate because the particles can further break down during the estimation process. Instead, Scott and his team applied a detailed analysis of particle dimensions to estimate its mass.
What happens to them from the landfill to the treatment plant
Microplastics might be everywhere, but the hotspots are landfills. Plastic breaks down in landfills and becomes more mobile. Leachate, or water and waste from the landfill, is piped to wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), which are not designed to handle microplastics.
The sludge produced by WWTPs is commonly used on crop fields since the biosolids are high in nutrients. Once applied, the sludge material—and microplastics—is taken up by plants and runs into surface water and groundwater.
Scott plans a pilot study to examine the feasibility of treating wastewater to remove microplastics that come into plants before sludge is pumped back out into the environment.
Ideally, though, keeping plastics out of the landfills by reducing the amount produced, using fewer single-use plastic products, and better plastic recycling would be the way to go, Scott said.
During the past academic year, many stakeholders observed current waste management practices and coordinated and conducted a waste characterization study to represent campus-wide activities. Study results and annual material generation data were analyzed and extrapolated, campus focus groups were held to provide input for ideal material management, and the research and recommendations were collated into one comprehensive plan to increase waste diversion and ultimately achieve a zero-waste campus.
UIC partnered with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program to conduct the waste audit, engage stakeholders, and spearhead plan development. The plan identifies nearly 100 strategies for waste reduction and diversion and was informed by the results of a November 2019 waste audit, along with insightful input received from students, faculty, staff, and community members.
UIC’s Waste Characterization Study
The waste characterization study included more than 3,300 pounds of trash from 14 buildings and outdoor campus collection bins sorted into 32 material categories.
The audit team used an activity zone approach to capture waste from buildings by use, such as administrative offices, academic and lab settings, student residence halls, and multi-use spaces.
Landfill and recycling bins from various outdoor areas of campus, such as along internal walking paths, busy urban corridors, and in parking structures, comprised an “On-the-go” activity zone. The study team and an enthusiastic group of student, staff, and faculty volunteers sorted the waste over the course of a wintery week.
Together team members worked to document and understand current waste management practices and analyzed waste generation. The Plan categorizes campus waste to show what is avoidable, currently recyclable, compostable, potentially recyclable, and non-recoverable.
The data revealed that 33% of the overall waste stream on campus is compostable material, such as food scraps. Nineteen percent of the waste stream is composed of recyclable materials such as paper or plastic bottles. Eighteen percent of the waste stream on campus consists of avoidable materials such as paper towels and disposable beverage cups. Five percent of the waste stream is comprised of potentially recyclable material such as plastic film and gloves that could be diverted through source-separated streams.
The remaining 24% of the waste stream consists of materials that are currently non-recoverable, i.e. items for which recovery end markets or programs do not yet exist, or for which solutions are not yet available at UIC or in surrounding areas. This includes items like single-use equipment and other non-recyclable paper, glass and plastic items.
“Data has been a critical part of our success in reaching almost a 50% recycling rate at UIC over the past decade, even while the number of students on campus has grown by 20%. With the help of data, the recycling program at UIC has vanquished a once prevalent view that Chicago doesn’t recycle. With the report from the ISTC led waste audit, the volume of food scraps, and the presence of currently recyclable materials point to impactful steps we must take in waste reduction, outreach, and education,” stated Joe Iosbaker, UIC’s Recycling Coordinator.
The study team also gathered input from members of the campus community through an online survey and a series of focus groups. Discussions shed light on knowledge, perceptions, and expectations of waste management infrastructure, the overall campus culture surrounding resource recovery, waste-related priorities, and challenges. This feedback from the UIC community was used to develop strategies to increase recycling and waste reduction. Through this multi-layer process, UIC now has a comprehensive roadmap to build from the 47% recycling rate today and prime the conditions for a zero-waste campus by 2050.
“The comprehensive presentation in the Materials Management Plan provided by ISTC gives us a greater understanding of the tasks we have,” Iosbaker asserted. Assistant Vice-Chancellor and Director of Sustainability Cindy Klein-Banai reinforced those sentiments stating, “This study has provided the data and next steps for robust strategies for reaching our Zero Waste Goal within the UIC Climate Commitments. It also demonstrates the need for broad responsibility in developing our program across all units and departments of the university.”
“ISTC’s Zero Waste team acknowledges the great potential of a comprehensive, campus-driven Sustainable Materials Management Plan,” shared April Janssen Mahajan, Sustainability Specialist at ISTC. “We fully embraced the challenges and opportunities this project offered to help UIC reconsider, reimagine and redefine campus waste and materials management in support of the university’s mission to become a Zero Waste Campus.”
In a new $1 million three-year project, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) researchers will develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel treatment system to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from tile drainage water, which will reduce nutrient loss from crop fields to local waterways.
Excess nutrients in surface water contribute to harmful algal blooms that produce toxins and threaten the health of water ecosystems. A variety of treatment techniques have been studied to reduce nutrient losses.
Woodchip bioreactors, which are buried trenches, have proven to be a cost-effective and sustainable solution to reduce nitrate-nitrogen loss from tile-drained crop fields. However, concentrations of ammonium-nitrogen are often elevated after water has flowed through a bioreactor. Also, woodchip bioreactors do not have a significant effect on phosphorus removal.
Principal investigator Wei Zheng and colleagues plan to develop an innovative treatment system by integrating woodchip bioreactor and designer biochar treatment techniques to reduce the losses of both nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from tile drainage.
Designer biochars are applied in biochar-sorption-channels to capture dissolved phosphorus and ammonium-nitrogen simultaneously. Researchers will seek to produce the most efficient designer biochars by pyrolysis of biomass pretreated with lime sludge.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded project will evaluate the new system by conducting a scale-up field study at a commercial corn production farm.
Researchers will also apply the nutrient-captured biochars as a soil amendment and a slow-release fertilizer in fields to improve soil fertility.
The results from this project will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nutrient management practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and offer an innovative, feasible, and cost-effective practice to mitigate the excess nutrient loads to watersheds, prevent and control algal blooms, and improve agricultural sustainability.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
On July 16, farmers and researchers came together at Fulton County Field Day. The event allowed researchers to showcase peer-reviewed applied science and demonstrate to working farmers that these conservation practices work. Individual farmers could then take aspects of what they learned and apply it in on their land.
ISTC researcher Wei Zheng demonstrated the system he has developed for using biochar to recycle nutrients from tile drainage systems. The project is funded through a grant from the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC).
The event was hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau, Fulton County Farm Bureau, Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Prairie Research Institute and University of Illinois Extension. Read more about the event in FarmWeek.
This is the first post in ISTC Impact, an occasional series highlighting the effect of some of ISTC’s long-running projects on the environment and economy of the state, region, and nation.
With one fresh idea and buy-in from state politicians and organizations, researchers in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) found a way to address the growing river sedimentation problem in Illinois, while also restoring waterways and habitat and moving healthy topsoil into cities.
The ISTC Mud to Parks project developed a blueprint for successfully recapturing one of Illinois’ finest resources: its soil.
“Soil is more valuable than oil,” said John Marlin, ISTC research affiliate, who originated the Mud to Parks idea and directed the project. “Yet we are treating soil today like it’s an unlimited resource, even as it erodes away.”
Soil from rural and urban areas washes into rivers and accumulates in backwaters and behind dams. Water levels in backwaters and side channels are becoming shallower as habitats deteriorate and areas can no longer be used for transportation and recreation. In the Illinois River’s Peoria Lake, levels have declined from 6 to 8 feet in the 1960s to 2 feet in recent years.
ISTC initiated a pilot project in 2004 after Marlin considered the sediment problem in Peoria Lake. Sediment storage areas were scarce in Peoria, but the material could be deposited on a 500-acre U.S. Steel South Works redevelopment site to create a park.
“Engineers told me that it couldn’t be done,” Marlin said. “It would be too expensive to truck sediment 165 miles from Peoria to Chicago. It occurred to me that barges could be loaded directly from the lake, and using the river system, we could take the barges right to the site, which borders Lake Michigan.”
But first, many agencies and organizations had to come on board. At that time, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn coordinated their participation in an “unbelievable political operation,” Marlin said. Representatives and senators from the Democratic and Republican parties supported the project, along with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ISTC, the Illinois State Water Survey, the City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, the City of East Peoria, and others.
Barges transported more than 80 loads of sediment to the Chicago site that summer. Once the sediment was removed from the barges, it was spread by bulldozer over 15 acres “like icing on a cake,” Marlin said. Over the winter, the sediment weathered to become loose soil, and eventually was used to plant grass, prairie vegetation and trees.
Two of the biggest advantages of the Mud to Parks initiative are the ability to help restore the aquatic habitat in Peoria Lake and to reclaim the sediment for use at restoration and construction sites. This prevents native soil from being taken from farmland and suburban developments for new projects.
“This project provided a way to take Illinois soil that was washed off the land through erosion and reuse the soil by putting it back on the land,” Marlin said. “Once the sediment is washed into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s gone.”
The process that was developed through the Mud to Parks project proved to be successful, but also difficult to continue. There needs to be a dredging project at one end of the journey and both an operation and a space to place and reuse the sediment at the other end. If commercial operations coordinated efforts to transport the sediment using barges and stockpile and dry the sediment-derived topsoil, they could mix in biosolids or compost for added nutrients if desired, then sell the topsoil at a profit, particularly in Chicago and St. Louis, where topsoil is expensive.