The Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center at ISTC

Since its inception in 1995, The Printers’ National Environmental Assistance Center (, has served as a valuable and comprehensive environmental resource for the printing, publishing, and packaging industry. PNEAC is the leading web site for printers and those who assist printers interested in improving their environmental performance. The program is principally funded by U.S. EPA. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is the coordinating agency for PNEAC.
PNEAC is a unique and effective partnership between industry, government, and university technical assistance providers. It serves those who interact with the printing industry — one of the largest manufacturing industries in the United States, North America, and the world. The PNEAC mission is to assist regulatory agencies and technical assistance providers by delivering current, reliable environmental compliance and pollution prevention information to printers, publishers, and packagers.
The PNEAC web site has been recently redesigned and new features include compliance and technical tools and resources supporting carbon emission reduction and energy efficiency. The site offers compliance information, fact sheets, case studies, virtual printing plants, contacts, program information, print process descriptions, and training.
Debra Jacobson is an Environmental Engineer and Printing Waste Reduction Specialist, and serves as the Director of the PNEAC. She also has coordinated the Great Printers Project and the Illinois Great Printers Project. Ms. Jacobson has been involved in the printing industry for over 20 years. She provides technical assistance to printers and related businesses regarding pollution prevention opportunities and authors compliance assistance tools, including manuals, fact sheets, and other resources for the printing industry. Jacobson also serves as Regional Operations Manager in the Oak Brook office of ISTC. She is responsible for providing technical, environmental and safety compliance assistance to industrial facilities within Illinois.

IL Sustainable Technology Centers appoints Associate Director

Luis Rodriguez has been named the Associate Director of the ETAP (Emerging Technologies and Assistance Program) team at ISTC. That program provides technical assistance to Illinois businesses for waste, water usage and energy reduction initiatives. Rodriguez formerly was Senior Director of Manufacturing at Cyberonics, a medical device company in Houston, and Director of Operations at Medtronic, Inc. at facilities in Puerto Rico, San Diego, and Minneapolis. He also formerly was Product Development Manager at General Electric Nuclear Waste Management Business in San Jose, CA. Dr. Rodriguez has a BS in Chemical Engineering from University of Puerto Rico, MS and PhD degrees in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Cincinnati, and an MBA from Santa Clara University. He and his wife Annie Rodriguez have three grandchildren and two adult children that reside in Champaign and Minneapolis. Luis enjoys daily jogging and playing chess and tennis.

Scientists look to turning plastics into oil

On Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean, a mother albatross returns from a trip out to sea to feed her chick. Unfortunately, she has mistaken a few of the countless, small pieces of plastic in a floating island of garbage as an appropriate meal for her chick, which will die as a result.


With the negative impact of ocean-bound plastic waste, a trend of increasing gas prices, and an uncertain future in foreign oil importation, many people think changes are needed to protect both the environment and the economy.


As part of the effort to address these concerns, researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are looking into the process of converting carbon-rich plastic into oil that could kill—or in this case, save—two birds with one stone. They hope that a system of creating energy out of otherwise wasted plastic material will scale back the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills, the oceans and other waterways as well as decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.


While plastic recycling programs are prevalent in many communities throughout the United States, much of the plastic that people dispose of is mixed in with regular garbage that is bound for a landfill.


Because the base material for most plastics is petroleum, it is possible to recover a percentage of that starting material with a series of chemical reactions.


“If we cannot recycle that completely then why should we waste that carbon?” asks ISTC Senior Research Scientist B.K. Sharma, who leads the ISTC’s plastics-to-oil project.


As a way to step in and prevent this plastic waste from going out the door and into an ocean or a landfill, Sharma and other researchers at ISTC are studying one way to add another “r” to the popular phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” They hope to add “recover”.


In order to recover that oil, plastic must be heated to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. In one of the labs at ISTC, researchers load plastic into one of the two containers of a bench-top device, seal the top and begin to apply heat.


As the temperature increases, the molten plastic material breaks down into petroleum compounds, and a gas is produced. The gas rises to the top of the container, passes through a tube and empties into some water held by the device’s second container. Here, the gas vapors condense into liquid oil. The oil is less dense than the water, so it rises to the top and can be collected.


The process can convert three types of plastics into oil—polyethylene (recycling numbers 2 and 4), polypropylene (5) and polystyrene (6).


One of the most visible uses of polyethylene is in plastic grocery bags. Whether drifting down the street or caught in a tree, these bags seem to be everywhere, creating a widespread litter problem that is very difficult to clean up.


Plastic bottle caps and yogurt cups are examples of polypropylene that can be converted into oil. However, a silicone lining is often underneath the top of the cap to prevent leaks and must be removed prior to pyrolysis. Examples of polystyrene products include Styrofoam, disposable cups, plates, cutlery, and jewel CD cases.


Sharma’s work is part of a larger body of research into the pyrolysis process, which he and other ISTC researchers have been studying for over two years. They have been using waste biomass as the starting material in much of their research, and six months ago Sharma began looking into using plastic as a feedstock.


During small-scale lab runs, one gallon of oil is produced from eight lbs of plastic, Sharma said. Although only small amounts of plastic-derived oil are being produced by ISTC research, Sharma feels that if implemented on a larger scale, the resulting crude oil can be further refined into significant amounts of energy products, such as diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel.


ISTC is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.


For more information call:

B.K. Sharma, ISTC Senior Research Scientist



Radio stations WDWS and WHMS interviewed Dr. Sharma about the project. The archive is available here: PLASTICSWRAP

Campus food waste become campus soap

When students who produce sustainable energy generate a “waste product,” they don’t wash their hands of it. They wash their hands with it.

Members of the soap group of the Illinois Biodiesel Initiative (IBI), are experimenting with recipes to create functional and marketable soap from glycerin, a by-product of the reaction that produces biodiesel. The IBI is a registered student organization at the University of Illinois. Members are working to improve upon a sample of liquid dish soap that they gave to the Ikenberry Dining Hall earlier this year, as well as developing new soaps to sell to other outlets on campus.

The Initiative works under the guidance of Joe Pickowitz, environmental engineer at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

IBI is an independent division of the campus’s Engineers without Borders group. Its main project is to collect waste vegetable oil from campus dining halls every week and convert it into biodiesel. The Initiative then sells the biodiesel back to the university through the campus’s facilities and services department to use in its vehicles.
Founded in 2006, IBI has made soap production a crucial part of its goal as a sustainable student group since fall 2011. Because only about 80 percent of the biodiesel reaction’s yield is fuel, the soap group is in charge of utilizing the remaining glycerin.

In January, the soap group gave 45 gallons of liquid soap to the dining hall, which Pickowitz calls “the test bed for the whole project.” There, it was used as a prewash in the dish rooms—only a few hundred feet from where the soap’s parent oil may have been used to fry a batch of chicken wings.

The soap helped clean the dishes, but it left behind a residue on the dishes and in the dishwashing machine, said chemical engineering sophomore and Soap Production Officer Stephanie Roupas. The group is addressing this concern by testing and reformulating batches of liquid soap and said they hope to have a new batch ready for the dining hall before summer break. The soap group is preparing other samples for university housing as part of a proposal to replace the hand soap in dormitory bathrooms with a product that is sustainably manufactured right on campus.

Along with liquid soap, the group has been testing different recipes for solid soap. The form of the final soap product depends on which strong basic compound is used as a catalyst in the biodiesel reaction. While potassium hydroxide produces liquid soap, sodium hydroxide produces solid soap.

In the solids preparation lab at ISTC, Soap Research Lead Olivia Webb, who is a freshman in agricultural and biological engineering, demonstrates one problem with the solid soap. A recent batch has the consistency of Play-Doh, and it is difficult to remove samples from the pan.

“See, it’s not supposed to do that—where it’s sticking like that,” she says. “This is still useable as soap. It’s just not as marketable.”

Still working toward a perfect batch of soap, the group overcomes defects like this by carefully experimenting with new ingredients, different cooking times, and varying ingredient ratios.

Marketability may be difficult for the raw version of the soap, Webb says, because it’s brown and smells a bit like a fry cook after a day’s work. In an effort to make their product more appealing, Webb says they will re-batch the pan of bar soap to make it harder, so they are able to sell it on campus. They are also adding a scent to the sample that they will present to university housing to make it more attractive. Because most commercial dyes and scents are not sustainable, students have begun to color the soap with environmentally friendly products, such as algae, and are looking into using natural, essential oils rather than fragrances.

While they are developing their soap to be a more marketable product, Webb says they are not planning to sell it anywhere beyond campus this early in the game, as they strive for both environmental and economic sustainability.

“It would be a lot easier to start in the university so we have something to say [to consumers], ‘Our soap actually works,’” she remarks. “And it’s also easier to sell to people in the university because your shipping and packaging costs are low.”

Interns provide help on ISTC programs

ISTC had several student hourly workers and interns joining us for projects this summer.

• Nathan Tissier is a junior at the University of Illinois completing his degree in agriculture and biological engineering. He has been providing laboratory support in the ARIES program for several months. His current projects include speciation of arsenic compounds in Hawaiian algae and summative mass closure of biomass for energy crops. He is an avid golfer, fisherman, and other outdoor activities.

• Joe (Huizhou) Yin is working as a student hourly with B.K. Sharma. Joe is studying for his B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois and expecting to graduate in May 2013. He has been working with B.K. on his research on conversion of low quality oils to lubricant base oils through chemical modification.

• Tina Dinh is working as student hourly with Wei Zheng and B.K. Sharma. Tina is a B.S. Chemical Engineering student at Illinois and is expecting to graduate in Dec. 2013. She has been working on biochar project to study its effectiveness in preventing fertilizer run-off.

• Seth Rients has working as an intern with Joe Pickowitz this summer. Seth is in the Professional Science Master’s program on Advanced Energy and Fuel Management at Southern Illinois University. He has been working on developing a variety of water reuse systems for the laboratory and building, as well as examining ways to reduce water use in the production of biodiesel at ISTC.

• Wonky Yuen is working as a student hourly with Xinli Lu. Wonky is the third year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, at UIUC. He has been working on groundwater availability, heating & cooling potentials for the sponsored project – Illinois Groundwater Source Geothermal Resource Mapping.

• Chris Yim is a senior at Central High School who is participating in a 4-week internship with Junhua Jiang. His research with Junhua has been on electrochemical detection of nitrite using biochar electrodes. Chris is taking part in a pilot program called the I-STEM High School Summer Research Experience which was organized by the I-STEM office on campus.

Champaign County Residential Electronics Collection, Saturday, August 4

Champaign County will offer a residential electronics collection event from 8 a.m to noon on Saturday, August 4, 2012. The drop off location is the News-Gazette Distribution Center at 3202 Apollo Drive in Champaign, IL. Click here to view a map of the location, a list of acceptable electronic items being collected, and information on what becomes of the devices that you bring in for recycling.

Champaign County hosts approximately four of these events a year. If you are unable to go to the event this Saturday, another event will be held at the same location, 8 a.m. to noon on October 13, 2012.

Between collection events, check ISTC’s Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) fact sheet on take back and donation programs for a variety of options on what to do with your unwanted gadgets. You can also always check to find recycling locations near you for a wide variety of items by entering your Zip code.

If you have any questions regarding the county collection events, call 217-328-3313.

Indoor Climate program launches new website

A new website for the Indoor Climate Research & Training (ICRT) program is now live. It is available at

The ICRT program is part of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois. The program began when the University of Illinois received a grant to establish a training center for those involved in the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (IHWAP). The program now has expanded to additional areas such as:

• Training and certifying assessors and others from community action agencies throughout the state who perform weatherization work on qualifying residences.
• Performing indoor air quality research on lead in paints and radon migration.
• Evaluating impacts of different ventilation standards on human health in homes receiving energy-focused retrofits.
• Evaluating the energy savings and indoor air quality impacts of retrofits performed under the Weatherization Assistance Program.
• Developing training curricula for the national home performance industry.

ICRT is headquartered in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center building at One Hazelwood Drive on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The program also has a classroom building at 2111 S. Oak Street, Suite 106 in Champaign.

International e-waste competition underway

Current college/university students and recent graduates have an opportunity to create useful and appealing products from e-waste—computers, printers, cell phones and similar materials that would normally end up in landfills. And their efforts could win them prizes.

The International E-Waste Design Competition (, allows participants will explore solutions to this problem at the local level and beyond. At the conclusion of last year’s competition, $20,000 in prize money was awarded to six teams and three honorable mentions. Prize money was contributed by corporate sponsors including DELL and Walmart. The prizes for the 2012 competition have yet to be announced. The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) ( and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) ( coordinate the competition.

Registration is free and opens September 1, 2012. College students and recent graduates are encouraged to submit their ideas for products or services that prevent e-waste generation through life-cycle considerations (E-Waste Prevention Category). or that incorporate e-waste components into a new and useful item (E-Waste Reuse Category). See the rules posted on the competition web site for complete details regarding eligibility and descriptions of project categories. One entry per person or team is allowed. Students are not allowed to be on more than one team, but students are allowed to submit a project with one team and additionally submit one individual project.

Registration closes November 1, 2012 and winners will be announced in early December as the finale of ISTC’s Sustainability Seminar series for Fall 2012. That series will be focused on sustainable electronics. The awards presentation will also be broadcast as a webinar.

As part of their entry, participants will upload a “video commercial” for their project to YouTube. (See “Registration” on the competition web site for complete entry requirements.) Expert jurors from industry, professional organizations, government agencies, universities and non-profits will award monetary prizes to individuals or teams in each category, for a total of six prizes. Honorary mention awards may be given at the discretion of the judges. Competition sponsors have included leading manufacturers, retailers and professional organizations, and will be listed on the competition site as they are confirmed.

Instructors at colleges, universities and trade schools are encouraged to promote this competition to their students and to consider incorporating entry into course curricula. Various institutions beyond The University of Illinois have done this over the years, particularly with industrial design courses. The competition is open to students from all disciplines. Past entries have been received from students in mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, biomedical engineering, industrial design, and fine and applied arts.

The competition began as a local event on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. William Bullock, a professor of Industrial Design with the School of Art + Design taught a course on e-waste issues. As part of that class, the students conducted an e-waste collection on campus to gather unused CPUs, monitors, keyboards, mice, printers, scanners and cell phones as fodder for design projects. From that, the idea for a local reuse competition was born, and the competition was open to the entire campus. In 2010, the competition expanded to a global scale where applicants were asked to submit ideas online, including videos of their entries. The competition has grown to encompass ideas for waste prevention as well as waste reuse.

E-waste is an important social and environmental issue. The U.S. EPA estimates that Americans currently own nearly 3 billion electronic products and that about two-thirds of the electronic devices removed from service are still in working order. However, only about 15% of this material is recycled while the majority is disposed in landfills.

For more information on entering the competition, incorporating it into courses, or being a sponsor, contact Joy Scrogum, SEI Education Coordinator, or at 217-333-8948. For videos from last year’s competition, see

Students seek new uses for discarded laptop computers

Is a laptop computer useless without a hard drive? A group of University of Illinois students doesn’t think so and is exploring new uses for such discarded laptops.
Laptops used by government agencies and various industries typically have their hard drives removed or destroyed before being sent to recycling. This is done out of concern for data of a secretive, sensitive, or personal nature falling into the wrong hands.

With funding provided by Dell, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois is supporting the project entitled “A New Life for Laptops.” The project is being done in conjunction with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at ISTC. Through this grant, SEI is challenging university researchers and students to envision untapped and underexplored uses for the valuable materials in laptops. The goal is to extend the useful life of these materials prior to recycling. Continue reading “Students seek new uses for discarded laptop computers”