Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding now available to support recycling and composting

Three colorful bins, labelled "Compost," "Waste," and "Recycle" sit side by side. Each bin's label shows photos of materials that should be placed inside.
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

On November 17, 2022 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the availability of $100 million in grants for recycling infrastructure and recycling education and outreach projects throughout the country.

The Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling (SWIFR) Grant Program is divided into several funding opportunities. Information on the State and Territory Grant Program and the Political Subdivisions Grant Program is currently available on the U. S. EPA website, with information on the Tribal Grant Program coming soon.

SWIFR Political Subdivisions Grant Program

Entities eligible to apply for funding through the SWIFR Political Subdivisions Grant Program include “Political subdivisions” of states and territories, such as counties, cities, towns, parishes, and similar units of governments that have executive and legislative functions to be political subdivisions of states and territories.

Applications Due: January 16, 2023
Notice of Intent to Apply Deadline: December 15, 2022
Funding Available: The minimum individual award amount is $500,000 and the maximum individual award is $4,000,000 for the grant period.
Grant Period: Up to 3 years

Materials and waste streams considered under this announcement include:

  • Municipal solid waste (MSW), including plastics, organics, paper, metal, glass, etc. and construction and demolition (C&D) debris.
  • In addition, materials and waste streams considered include the management pathways of source reduction, reuse, sending materials to material recovery facilities, composting, industrial uses (e.g., rendering, anaerobic digestion (AD)), and feeding animals.

All applications must achieve one or more of the following objectives:

  • Establish, increase, expand, or optimize collection and improve materials management infrastructure.
  • Fund the creation and construction of tangible infrastructure, technology, or other improvements to reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream.
  • Establish, increase, expand, or optimize capacity for materials management.
  • Establish, improve, expand, or optimize end-markets for the use of recycled commodities.
  • Demonstrate a significant and measurable increase in the diversion, recycling rate, and quality of materials collected for municipal solid waste.

Eligible activities include (but are not limited to):

  • Innovative solutions and/or programs that provide or increase access to prevention, reuse, and recycling in areas that currently do not have access; including development of and/or upgrades to drop-off and transfer stations (including but not limited to a hub-and-spoke model in rural communities), etc.
  • The purchase of recycling equipment, including but not limited to sorting equipment, waste metering, trucks, processing facilities, etc.
  • Upgrades to material recovery facilities (MRFs) such as optical sorters, artificial intelligence, etc.
  • Development of and/or upgrades to composting facilities or anaerobic digesters to increase capacity for organics recycling.
  • Development of and/or upgrades to curbside collection programs or drop-off stations for organics.
  • Development of and/or upgrades to reuse infrastructure such as online reuse platforms, community repair spaces, technology and equipment to improve materials management reuse options, food donation, and upcycling, staging areas for material reuse/donation, reuse warehouses, and reuse centers, and electronic waste and computer recycling and refurbishing.

Recycling Education and Outreach (REO) Grant Program

The REO Grant Program includes $30 million in funding for projects to improve consumer education and outreach on waste prevention, reuse, recycling, and composting. The grants aim to reduce waste generation, decrease contamination in the recycling stream, and increase recycling rates across the country in a manner that is equitable for all.

Eligible applicants include:

  • U.S. States, including Washington, D.C.
  • Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.
  • Local governments.
  • Federally recognized tribal governments.
  • Native Hawaiian organizations, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
  • Nonprofit organizations.
  • Public-private partnerships.

Applications Due: January 16, 2023
Notice of Intent to Apply Deadline: December 15, 2022
Funding Available: The minimum individual award floor is $250,000, and the maximum individual award ceiling is $2,000,000 for the grant period.
Grant Period: Up to 3 years

Materials within the scope of this grant program include commonly recycled materials, such as aluminum and steel containers, glass, cardboard paper, and plastics, as well as food, organics (yard and tree trimmings, wood, etc.), textiles, batteries, and electronics. Also within the scope of this grant program are education and outreach activities that prevent or reduce waste by reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, recycling, composting, or using anaerobic digestor systems to treat these types of materials or to reduce related contamination.

All projects must encourage the collection of recyclable materials and must achieve one or more of the following objectives:

  • Inform the public about residential or community recycling programs.
  • Provide information about the recycled materials that are accepted as part of a residential or community recycling program that provides for the separate collection of residential solid waste from recycled material.
  • Increase collection rates and decrease contamination in residential and community recycling programs.

Eligible activities include (but are not limited to):

  • Public service announcements.
  • Door-to-door education and outreach campaigns.
  • Social media and digital outreach.
  • An advertising campaign on recycling awareness.
  • The development and dissemination of:
    • a toolkit for a municipal and commercial recycling program.
    • information on the importance of quality in the recycling stream.
    • information on the benefits of recycling.
    • information on what happens to materials after the materials are placed in the bin.
  • Businesses recycling outreach.
  • Bin, cart, and other receptacle labeling and signs.
  • Community ambassador education programs or training the trainer programs.
  • Other education and outreach activities to improve waste prevention, reuse, and recycling, and reduce contamination, such as evaluations and evidence-based messaging and strategies associated with preventing or reducing waste and improving reuse, repair, refurbish, and remanufacture of materials.

Learn more

“Green” your Halloween with these seasonal waste diversion programs

What do the members of the ISTC Technical Assistance Program’s zero waste team fear the most? Unnecessary waste! Think about all the products and packaging sent off to be prematurely buried in landfills before their useful “lives” are truly over–it makes our blood run cold. To avoid being haunted by the ghosts of poorly managed materials, check out the following Halloween waste diversion programs to keep waste out of landfills.

Please note that links and/or mentions of organizations or businesses are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as endorsements by the Technical Assistance Program, ISTC, the Prairie Research Institute, or the University of Illinois.

Pumpkin Smash Events

Did you know that IL leads the nation in production of pumpkins? Did you further know that pumpkins are mostly water? A great deal of labor, land, water, and other resources are invested in growing, harvesting, and distributing pumpkins in our state, and many of them end up being used for brief decorations that may wind up in landfills after Halloween has passed.

Pumpkin “Smash” events are events to collect jack-o-lanterns and other pumpkins for composting. They’re held on the Saturday after Halloween (November 5th this year), and may involve fun activities in which people can “smash” their pumpkins by throwing them into a designated dumpster or compost heap. Some events even involve pumpkin “chucking” with catapults! SCARCE has helped Pumpkin Smashes grow to over 59 sites across IL since 2014, and their efforts have even inspired communities outside of IL to host their own pumpkin collections. According to the SCARCE website, the 2021 Pumpkin Smash events collectively composted over 242 tons of pumpkins! See https://www.scarce.org/pumpkins/ for more information, including a map of registered events in the state, a guide for hosting a Pumpkin Smash to help with planning for next year, a form to register your local event so it will be included on the aforementioned map, and example flyers and other resources to help spread the word. See this recent Illinois Food Scrap Coalition blog post and flyer developed by Go Green Winnetka for further information.

Flyer for Pumpkin Smash Event at the Landscape Recycling Center in Urbana, IL.

Candy Wrapper Recycling Programs

When you’re hosting a Halloween party or having kids trick-or-treat at the homes of people you know and trust, there are opportunities to pass out/receive homemade or minimally-packaged bulk treats and reduce the amount of plastic packaging associated with Halloween festivities. However, the reality is that many people pass out candy to or collect candy from strangers; plus, many of us like to purchase Halloween candy to share with coworkers or our family during the month of October as part of celebrating. The result is lots of plastic packaging ending up in landfills because such material is not collected in typical recycling programs because the form or components of the packaging make them difficult to recycle. There are however, a couple of options that can help divert the seasonal increase in candy wrappers from the landfill.

Trick or trash box
Trick or Trash collection box available from Rubicon.

Rubicon, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Foundation, annually offers a Trick or Trash program, in which schools, independent small businesses, and community organizations can order FREE candy wrapper collection boxes. Organizations receive their collection boxes through the UPS Carbon Neutral Shipment program, set them up and collect wrappers until their box is full. Then, boxes are sealed and mailed back using a pre-affixed label. Each participating organization gets a certificate of recycling confirming how many wrappers they diverted from landfill. The recycled plastic can be used to make “doggie bags” used at animal shelters for animal waste collection. See https://www.rubicon.com/trick-or-trash/how-it-works/ for more information, and https://www.rubicon.com/trick-or-trash/#block_5aee8cc625f6cfa2532fd2b387a4e675 to order a free box. Educational materials, including lesson plans, are available at https://www.rubicon.com/trick-or-trash/education/. Note that teachers and organizations are limited to one free box to ensure that more people across the country can participate, and you should allow at least a week for shipping. So if you order a free box now, you might plan to collect wrappers right after Halloween, rather than at Halloween events. Individuals or larger business might choose to purchase a box for participation.

TerraCycle also sells “zero waste boxes” for various hard-to-recycle waste streams, including candy and snack wrapper zero waste boxes. That company also collaborates with various Subaru locations nationwide that host collection boxes for items including disposable cups, lids, straws, candy and snack wrappers, and coffee and creamer capsules. Learn more on the TerraCycle Subaru Loves the Earth web page and search for a participating location near you.

Learn more about reducing and reusing on Halloween

Illinois EPA announces notice of funding opportunity for county solid waste planning

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) Director John J. Kim recently announced a new funding to assist counties and other units of local government in implementing their solid waste planning obligations under the Illinois Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act (SWPRA). This funding opportunity follows a recommendation from the Statewide Materials Management Advisory committee that recommended, in its July 2021 report, that the Illinois EPA provide financial support to units of local government to enable them to make meaningful updates to their statutorily required solid waste management plans. A Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) has been posted to the Illinois EPA website.

Under the Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act, counties and units of local government are obligated to revisit their Illinois Solid Waste Management Plans every five years and, if necessary, submit plans with significant updates to the Illinois EPA, said Director Kim. These grants provide an important resource to county and local governments as they update these plans for managing solid waste disposal and recycling.”

The Illinois EPA Waste Reduction and Compliance Section is responsible for reviewing county solid waste management plans submitted pursuant to the SWPRA. Through this funding opportunity, Illinois EPA intends to provide interested counties, and other units of local government required to develop a county solid waste management plan, financial assistance to help prepare the next plan update.

Eligible projects include, but are not limited to:

  • Conducting a local solid waste and materials management needs assessment;
  • Surveying local solid waste and materials management stakeholders to determine programmatic expansion viability;
  • Internally authoring solid waste management plan updates; or
  • Procuring consulting services to prepare solid waste management plan updates.

The Illinois EPA Waste Reduction and Compliance Section (WRCS) is responsible for reviewing County Solid Waste Management Plans submitted pursuant to the SWPRA.

Each county or unit of local government required to develop a solid waste management plan is eligible for $5,000.00 of funding. Applications must be submitted electronically to epa.recycling@illinois.gov and are due by 5:00 PM (CST) on May 31, 2022. Applicants may not apply for a grant until they are prequalified through the Grant Accountability and Transparency Act (GATA) Grantee portal.

Tools to increase creativity and reduce food waste

dragon fruit

Food waste in the home can often occur because of boredom or limited knowledge of how to use certain ingredients. A consumer may have leftovers in their fridge that they don’t want to waste, but can’t bear to eat one more time in the item’s current form while simultaneously not knowing how to repurpose the item for a new dish. Or perhaps they’ve acquired an edible item that’s completely new to them, so they’re not sure how to use it in the first place. This can happen when shoppers impulsively buy exotic produce or other ingredients at grocery stores without having performed research ahead of time–maybe the item just looked intriguing on the shelves, or its praises were sung by a friend or trusted podcast, prompting a desire for a new experience without adequate guidance.

This type of food waste also happens when food banks distribute fresh produce in an effort to promote healthy diets without simultaneously distributing tips on how to use the produce. Donated commodities may not always fall within the range of familiarity for a food recipient and they may find themselves having no idea what to do with the celery root or artichokes in their pre-packed food box.

Even if one is familiar with an ingredient, sometimes it loses its appeal when used in the same way time after time. Imagine a parent who frequently buys peas because their children love them. Those kids might become less receptive to the peas after having them prepared the same way at least once a week for a year. Below are several sites that provide inspiration for cooking unfamiliar foods or preparing familiar ones in new ways.

Recognizing that inspiration is as important a tool in keeping food out of landfills as compost piles and meal planning, the Love Food Hate Waste Canada website includes a section called “Get Inspired.” This section not only includes tips on how to preserve or store foods to prevent waste and meal planning, it also provides a page called “5 Ways With.” This page presents five interesting ways to use ingredients in the categories dairy, fruits & veggies, grains & bread, and meat & eggs.

5 ways with page

For example, broccoli stalks can be used in fritters or pesto or as an addition to soups, salads, or stir-fry. Links to recipes are provided when the suggestion calls for more detailed instruction.

The flagship Love Food Hate Waste website, launched by the UK organization Waste & Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, includes a “Recipes” section that allows users to search for ideas based on dietary parameters, preparation difficulty, or cooking time.

CookIt from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Save the Food website helps consumers find recipes for a wide variety of ingredients, including those that are commonly thrown out as scraps, such as overripe avocados or cheese rinds. It also provides ideas for transforming ingredients that are “past their prime” to get the most use out of available food. Some of the recipes are accompanied by videos of Chef Joel Gamoran making the recipe.

save the food.com logo

SuperCook allows users to search for recipes based on ingredients they have on hand. Similar tools include MyFridgeFood, Cookpad, Cookin’ with Google, and the Use Up Leftovers tool on the BigOven recipe database website.

The next time you’re faced with unfamiliar or uninspiring food, don’t throw it out! Get out your smartphone and consult these online tools and resources to find a way to make that edible appealing.

Note: This post was originally published on the ISTC Green Lunchroom Challenge blog, which is maintained by Technical Assistance Program staff. Check out that blog for more news, resources, and tips on preventing food waste and diverting food from landfills via rescue, repurposing, composting, and other strategies.

Redesigned Sustain Springfield Green Map Released

The Urban Action Network has partnered with Lincoln Land Community College’s GIS Program since 2017 to provide an online map of all things “green” in Springfield.  The Sustain Springfield Green Map (SSGM) is a user-friendly, GIS-based, online resource that guides residents, visitors, organizations, and businesses to sustainable or environmentally-friendly services, sites, and amenities. Map users can easily find recycling locations, community gardens, car charging stations, and much more. The SSGM has been redesigned to make searching even easier.

This completely redesigned Map streamlines category headings, tells its story better with tabs and graphics, and includes a new Special Projects section in the Gallery. The special projects mini-maps currently include Springfield’s tiny libraries and micro-pantries and the section provides an opportunity for more LLCC GIS students, the public, and special audiences to contribute to its development through emailing suggested additions. A Steering Committee (see Supporters tab in the online map) formulates new ways to expand Map content and engage the public.

The Sustain Springfield Green Map is a project of the Urban Action Network (UAct) which provides executive oversight and operational support. The original map was created as a classroom project by Jordyn Lahey, an LLCC GIS student. The SSGM is hosted by LLCC under the guidance of Geography Professor, Dean Butzow and is maintained as an in-kind service by LLCC GIS Instructor, Rey de Castro and Think GeoSpatial Educator, Jenni Dahl, who are also members of the Steering Committee.

“Springfield is remarkably green for a city of its size and we must continue to cultivate and support sustainability in Springfield.  The Sustain Springfield Green Map is a dynamic tool that showcases Springfield’s environmental services, sites, and amenities placing the information at our fingertips,” said UAct President Sheila Stocks-Smith. “Please share the Map widely with your family, friends, and social networks, and perhaps the Sustain Springfield Green Map can help inspire us all to make conscious choices and act collectively to make every day Earth Day.”

See the newly redesigned Green Map online at https://arcg.is/u14Hq.

UIC releases Sustainable Materials Management Plan developed with ISTC

Document cover, saying "Sustainable Materials Management Plan," along with the UIC logo and a photo of trash arranged to form the logo.The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) recently released a Sustainable Materials Management Plan, a concrete step in the university’s goal to become a Zero Waste Campus.

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 Multiple bins and buckets, each containing a different type of waste identified in the waste auditmaterial 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.

UIC’s Sustainable Materials Management Plan

Co-led by ISTC, and UIC’s Office of Planning Sustainability and Project Management (PSPM), a team of staff, faculty, and students from various departments, external partners and industry experts developed the Sustainable Materials Management Plan.

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.

Bar graph showing the percentage of various types of materials present in the UIC waste stream during the November 2019 waste audit

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.”

PRI Researchers Gather in Australia for Top GHG Control Conference

Nine Prairie Research Institute (PRI) carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) researchers traveled to Melbourne, Australia in October for the Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies Conference 14, the field’s leading biennial scientific gathering, sponsored by the 30-nation Energy Technology Network.

gas separation test facility for CO2 capture
The $100 million CO2CRC gas separation test facility in Otway, Australia is developing new membrane materials for use in capturing purified carbon dioxide at a high- concentration natural gas well. This apparatus demonstrates the ability to test lab scale, flat membrane sheets and single fibers of hollow fiber membranes.

While at the conference, they visited Australia’s major CCS center, the Otway National Research Center. Otway’s CO2CRC gas separation test facility is developing membranes and techniques for CO2 storage, according to ISTC Director Kevin OBrien.

OBrien added that Dr. Abdul Qader, CO2CRC’s facilities manager, explained new strategies for separating CO2 from methane. “This would be a major driver for the natural gas industry in the Asia-Pacific region,” OBrien explained.

“They also have the ability to test new sorbents as part of their research into pressure swing absorption,” he said.

PRI is also a major player in technology development for CCUS. At ISTC, research focuses on the development of a large-scale U.S. carbon capture pilot at a working coal-fired power plant. Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) researchers have developed expertise in sequestration of carbon dioxide in deep rock formations.

Because global demand for fossil fuels is not likely to decline soon, technologies must be developed to reduce carbon emissions by capturing, storing, and finding beneficial ways to use the waste gas, OBrien said. Capture requires a lot of energy and work at PRI and CO2CRC both search for better capture efficiency to lower its cost.

Work is underway worldwide to perfect a wide variety approaches. Successful commercialization of any of these technologies could be a game changer for climate change efforts because most of the world’s economies will continue using coal and other fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, said OBrien.

team of researchers at Australia conference
PRI CCUS researchers (left to right) Chris Korose, Randy Locke, Kevin OBrien, Sallie Greenberg, Scott Frailey, Vinod Patel, Nick Malkewicz (of Projeo Corporation), and Lance Schideman. Steve Whittaker and Keri Canaday (not pictured) also attended meeting.

#P2Week Day 2: Reducing Your Impact Through Repair

This post was written by Joy Scrogum and originally published on the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) BlogFor more information on Pollution Prevention (P2) Week, see https://www.epa.gov/p2week

Those of us in the Great Lakes region (and the rest of the US and Canada) live in a so-called “throw-away society” in which consumerism is rampant, and goods are not often designed or produced with durability in mind. In fact, in recent years, more and more goods are designed to be explicitly or implicitly disposable. Even complex products, such as consumer electronics, are treated as if they are meant to be ephemeral. The classic example is the smartphone. These devices are astounding feats of scientific innovation and engineering. For perspective, consider ZME Science’s article from September 2017: Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. Despite their complexity, and the fact that you, and probably everyone you know, barely scratch the surface in terms of using these devices to their full potential, we are constantly bombarded with cues to upgrade to the latest model. And new models seem to be released ever more frequently, always being touted as somehow greatly more advanced than their predecessors. A simpler example is clothing–when was the last time you sewed up or patched a hole in a shirt or pair of pants? Something that once would have been done by most people as a matter of course might now be deemed peculiar. A modern member of our culture might wonder why one would bother to patch a pair of pants when a new pair could be obtained so cheaply.

Our “take-make-dispose” model can also be called a  linear economy, and the message you receive in such a system is clear: if you have something that becomes damaged or has minor performance issues, you should just replace it. In fact, even if what you have is working well, the time will quickly come when you should just replace the old with the new. Replace, rinse, and repeat. A linear economy is one in which natural resources are extracted and used to create goods which will entirely, or partially, inevitably end up in landfills or incinerators. Some materials may be recovered and recycled, but over time these materials degrade in quality and are used for increasingly lower grade purposes, so that ultimately they will become wasteof little or no further use.

Of course, in order to replace whatever is being disposed of, new goods are required. And those new goods require as much or more resources as the ones that went before them–new minerals and other raw materials must be extracted. Extraction processes can have negative environmental and social impacts (e.g. pollution, habitat destruction, human rights issues related to labor practices, health issues related to exposure to chemicals or physical risks, etc.). Materials are transported to factories (requiring the use of energy in the form of fuel) where they are transformed into new products, again potentially with new human exposures to toxins or other adverse conditions, and potential new emissions of toxins or other substances of concern. In the case of products such as electronics, sometimes components are manufactured in places distant from each other and must be further transported to be brought together in yet another factory to create a complete device. And the finished product is in turn transported across the globe to reach consumers, resulting in more expenditure of energy, more emissions. By the time most products reach the consumer, a great deal of natural and human resources have been invested in them, and however positively the product itself may impact a human life or the broader ecosystem, the number of potential negative impacts all along the supply chain have stacked up. Clearly, any tendency to treat products as disposable, purposefully or incidentally, exacerbates those negative impacts by requiring the manufacture of more products, more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, as long as the demand for product does not diminish.

The tragedy of this linear cycle of use and disposal has lead to the advocacy for a circular economy–one in which extraction of resources is minimized and products and services are designed in such a way as to maximize the flow of materials through resource loops as close to perpetually as physically possible. In such a system, what might have once been considered “waste” continues to be valued in some form or another. A circular economy is built upon design for durability, reuse, and the ability to keep products in service for as long as possible, followed by the ability to effectively reclaim, reuse and recycle materials.

A comparison of linear and circular economies. From the New Zealand Ministry for Environment, https://www.mfe.govt.nz/waste/circular-economy.

So while the industrial designers of tomorrow will hopefully create products that are in line with the more circular worldview, what can you as a consumer do today to foster a circular economy? Of course you can reduce your use of materials, but practically, you will still need to use some products in order to support yourself, your family, and your lifestyle. You can reuse materials for something other than their original purpose, and sell or donate unwanted functional items so that someone else may use them. Similarly you can purchase items that have been previously used by someone else. And recycling of materials after the end of their original purpose allows for at least some extension of their value. But there is another “r,” which in some ways can be seen as a specialized form of reuse, that is becoming more popular–repair. If you own something with minor damage or performance issues, you can choose to repair it rather than replace itAccording to WRAP, a UK organization dedicated to resource efficiency and the circular economy,  “Worth over £200m in gross revenue each year, 23% of the 348,000 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collected at household waste and recycling centres could be re-used with minor repairs.” The US company iFixit reports similar statistics, and further states that for every 1000 tons of electronics, landfilling creates less than one job, recycling creates 15 jobs, and repair creates 200 jobs.

There are many barriers to repair, including costs (real or perceived), knowledge, confidence in those performing the repair (one’s self or someone else), and access to tools, instruction manuals and repair code meanings which tell technicians exactly what the problem is so they can address it. Manufacturers of a variety of products, particular those with electronic components (everything from automobiles to cell phones to tractors) have come under pressure in recent years over the attempt to monopolize access to parts, tools, and necessary information for performing repairs, leading to what is called the Right to Repair movement. Currently, 18 US states, including Illinois, Minnesota,  and New York in the Great Lakes region, have introduced “fair repair” bills which would require manufacturers of various products to make those tools, parts, and pieces of information accessible to consumer and third-party repair shops. You can read more about the history of the right to repair movement and right to repair legislation on the Repair Association web site.

In an increasing number of communities around the world, citizens are coming together to share their knowledge, tools, and problem-solving skills to help each other repair every day items for free. I’m writing this on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and here are some examples of local projects that can help you repair the items you own:

  • Illini Gadget Garage. This one’s my favorite, but I’m admittedly biased, since I helped launch this project and coordinated it for the past few years. The IGG is a collaborative repair center for personally-owned electronic devices and small appliances. “Collaborative repair” means that project staff and volunteers don’t repair your device for you; rather they work with you to troubleshoot and repair your device. Assistance is free; consumers are responsible for purchasing their own parts if needed, though staff can help determine what parts might be necessary. In addition to working with consumers by appointment at their campus workshop, the IGG crew conduct “pop-up” repair clinics in various public spaces around the Champaign-Urbana community and across campus. Consumers not only benefit from the “do-it-together” approach, they also get access to specialized tools (e.g. soldering irons, pentalobe screwdrivers, heat guns, etc.) that enable device repair, which many folks wouldn’t have in their tool box at home. Though successful repair obviously can’t be guaranteed, project staff say that if it has a plug or electrical component, and you can carry into the shop (or pop-up), they’ll help you try to figure out and fix the problem.
  • The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign. Including both a downtown Urbana shop and a Campus Bike Center, this project provides tools and space for bicyclists to share knowledge and repair bicycles. This project sells refurbished bikes, and individuals who are willing to work on fixing up a donated bike (with assistance) can eventually purchase a bike at a discount. See https://thebikeproject.org/get-involved/join-the-bike-project/ for membership fees; an equity membership based on volunteer hours is available.

Wherever you live, you can watch for repair-related courses from local community colleges and park districts, and check to see if your local library operates a tool library, or at least lends some tools (e.g. you can check out a sewing machine and accessories from the Urbana Free Library). Many libraries also provide access to online research tools that can assist with auto and home repairs or more (e.g. see https://champaign.org/library-resources/research-learning).

Interested in starting your own repair-oriented project? Check out these additional examples and resources:

Learn more about the circular economy on the WRAP web site, or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation web site.

 

 

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.  

Plastic Is Forever – or Is It?

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.

Two jars: one contains a plastic shopping bag, the other contains oil made from the plastic shopping bagThe 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.

thousands of bottle caps inside a rubber tire. someone's dirty hands are sorting the capsSanjeev 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.