Can concrete rubble be recycled into new concrete? Is it possible to heat municipal solid waste until it releases its component parts as gases and then convert those gases into useful products? Is it possible to shorten the time required for the post-closure care of a landfill?
The Raleigh, N.C.-based Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) is funding research into these and other questions that are shaping the future of the solid waste industry. Meanwhile, the education arm of EREF provides scholarships for students in master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral programs that deal with waste management issues, says Bryan Staley, the new president and CEO of EREF. Staley, who holds a doctorate in civil engineering, also was an EREF scholarship recipient (see sidebar below).
EREF was founded in 1992, but it wasn’t until two years later that the board of directors met and began to define the organization’s role in the industry. According to Staley, the driving concept behind EREF is that industries succeed when research organizations help evaluate trends, guide strategic directions and solve technical problems. When EREF was established, there was no organization dedicated to waste industry research.
“Over the years, the foundation has grown into an exciting vehicle that is furthering the science, engineering and application of scientific research to real-world waste management problems,” says Leonard E. “Butch” Joyce, president of Richmond, Va.-based Joyce Engineering and secretary/treasurer of the EREF board of directors.
A major source of funding for solid waste research in the United States, EREF distributes nearly $750,000 in research grants every year. Projects have surveyed methods of enhancing methane production in landfills, evaluated regulatory guidelines concerning methane oxidation and studied a host of other subjects.
While many EREF projects deal with complex scientific principles, all aim to solve practical problems. Consider the eco-clamshell for carryout food orders. It came out of a project proposed by Alison Ormsby, an associate professor of environmental studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
When the college discovered that campus trash bins were overflowing with carry-out food containers, Ormsby set out to find a reusable container. But the market had nothing suitable to offer.
Reasoning that bins at other campuses were similarly overflowing with takeout packaging, Ormsby submitted a grant application to EREF to develop a reusable carryout container. The foundation liked the idea and awarded the proposal $32,000.
“The grant work produced a washable, reusable to-go food container students are required to use,” Staley says. “Students must check containers out by swiping ID cards. When students return the containers, another card swipe completes the record. Students who fail to return containers are charged.”
Introduced in 2008, the product — now known as the eco-clamshell — has since picked up adherents. Philadelphia-based Aramark, an international food service provider, embraced the product, introducing it to 80 of its college and university accounts. By December of 2009, 160 schools had established eco-clamshell programs, and hundreds more were testing the concept.
The eco-clamshell project was relatively simple, enabling it to progress quickly from proposal to practical application. Much EREF research takes longer and may require follow-up grants.
For instance, a $488,788 grant to Long Beach, Calif.-based SCS Engineers funds work to evaluate methods of measuring fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Another $268,873 grant to North Carolina State University is funding the development of a life-cycle assessment model capable of estimating the costs, energy use, emissions and environmental impacts associated with waste management processes like collection, separation, waste-to-energy, composting, landfilling and others. “This is a big picture project,” Staley says. “It will help us determine which waste management processes will have the least environmental impact under particular conditions.”
Sometimes, for instance, landfill disposal will produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than transporting recyclables over a long distance to a processor. Such a finding might lead to the construction of a recycling plant closer to a community.
“While we have done quite a few projects related to landfills, the industry is becoming less dependent upon landfill disposal,” Joyce says. “The industry trend is toward more diversion, recycling and composting. All of us on the board think it’s important to move on to new research topics so that we’ll be able to provide technical and financial answers to important questions when regulators begin to set policies that look beyond landfill disposal. We’re not abandoning landfill research, but we are moving on to other topics.”
EREF also has awarded $550,000 in scholarships to 35 students over the past 15 years. Doctoral and post-doctoral students receive up to $12,000 per year, paid in monthly installments. Awards may be extended for up to three years.
Master’s students receive up to $5,000 per year, and awards may continue for up to two years. Extensions, of course, depend upon satisfactory performance.
The program has been criticized for not supporting more students over the years. But EREF has been pursuing a scholarship strategy different from other scholarship programs.
“Most programs provide one-time monetary awards,” Staley says. “EREF provides continuing support throughout an entire program. That is a unique feature of our program.”
The unusual strategy has begun to pay off. “Today, we’re beginning to see a second generation of EREF scholars,” Staley says. “Many of our scholars now fill academic positions that enable them to encourage students to apply for scholarships with us.”
Paige Griffin, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Colorado State University, is an example. Griffin, who received an EREF scholarship in 2010, is studying and researching anaerobic digesters that treat organic solid waste. Her advisor also was the recipient of an EREF scholarship. “Our program is building a family of scholars,” Staley says.
EREF receives support from industry donors interested in supporting scholars and research projects. The foundation also generates funds from two major annual events: an auction held at WasteExpo and a golf tournament.
The auction is the foundation’s largest fundraiser. It is made possible by members of the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC), who donate refuse equipment sold at the auction. The 16th auction, held last May in Atlanta, brought in nearly $1 million and raised the total funds generated over 16 years to $15 million.
The EREF golf tournament also has become a popular event. Sponsored by Phoenix-based Republic Services and Chicago-based Veolia Environmental Services North America Corp., the October 2010 tournament sold out to 36 foursomes and raised $250,000.
With its increasingly powerful fundraising engines, EREF has matured in its efforts to guide strategic directions and solve technical problems in the solid waste industry. The foundation has begun to add scientific certainty to public policy decisions. “There has been a wide gap between science and public policy in the waste industry,” says Ron McCracken, president of Easley, S.C.-based RJM Associates, a marketing and relationship-development firm focused on the waste industry. “Solid, independent, university-based scientific research can help close this gap. It is important to the wellbeing of the public and the industry that the regulators have access to solid science.”
The Education of EREF’s New President and CEO
Bryan Staley, the new president and CEO of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), holds a doctorate in civil engineering and was himself the recipient of a scholarship from the foundation. His story is emblematic of many EREF scholars.
Staley obtained his undergraduate degree in biological and agricultural engineering in 1994 from North Carolina State University. Over the next few years, he worked in the agricultural and environmental industries and completed work in a master’s program in biosystems engineering offered by the University of Tennessee. He received his master’s degree in 2000.
Staley went to work as an engineering consultant, designing wastewater treatment plants, but he wanted to go back to school to do research and to teach. In 2004, he took a large cut in salary and entered a doctoral program in environmental engineering at North Carolina State.
He submitted an application for scholarship support to EREF. The foundation liked his research field — “Changes in Microbial Community Structure in Solid Waste Decomposition.” Translation: How can landfill owners increase methane gas output and produce energy?
EREF supported Staley’s studies for four years while he completed the doctoral program. When Staley received his doctorate, he presented his research findings to the EREF board of directors and president, who promptly hired him as vice president of environmental programs. He has worked for EREF since 2008. At the beginning of this year, he became the head of the organization.
For information on how to support the organization, visit EREF’s website at www.erefdn.org.
Mike Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.