July 2, 2012
What do you envision when you hear the word “research?” Given that I work for EREF, the largest source of funding for solid waste research, I’m always intrigued to hear what people think. Is it a picture of Einstein scratching out equations on a chalkboard? Maybe a laboratory filled with bubbling beakers, test tubes and high-tech equipment? Or perhaps your old college professor who used to introduce surprise exams with, “Time will pass…. Will you? ”
I’d bet most of us picture a university laboratory or corporate facility far removed from the reality of our daily lives, and even further removed from the routine activities of solid waste management. While there is a vein of truth to such stereotypes, many aspects of research are far more concrete and have altered not only our perspectives of how solid waste can be managed, impacting everything from regulatory guidance to daily operations. Here I’ll offer a peek through the lab doors at research that is helping shape policy, increase knowledge and advance the solid waste field.
I’m standing in the “hot room” in a lab at a prominent university in the Southeast, although such rooms exist at many U. S. universities. The room lives up to its name as it is kept at a constant 99 degrees Fahrenheit and contains row upon row of shiny canisters. There is a faint odor of decay. This isn’t a scene out of “Reanimator.” Those canisters are filled with decomposing refuse.
Recent findings from hot room research, much of it funded in part by EREF, have challenged the validity of AP-42 guidelines and helped improve the accuracy of the LandGEM model, both of which are used to estimate methane production from landfills. This impacts everything from gas collection and control requirements to accurate development of landfill gas to energy projects. More recent work has considered the effectiveness of biodegradable plastics and explored if nanoparticles released from decomposing garbage pose an environmental risk.
But labs aren’t the only place where research is being conducted. On the landfill, fieldwork is under way to determine the most effective designs for vegetative (more descriptively called “evapotranspirative”) landfill caps. Leachate quality and gas volume data from the field have also been used to develop and refine the only performance- based methodology for postclosure of landfills.
We know that waste collection represents the core of many waste businesses. Ongoing research at institutions such as the University of Nebraska, the University of Central Florida and North Carolina State University is measuring vehicular emissions from garbage trucks (currently emissions are estimated based on over-the-road trucks, which have a duty cycle nowhere close to that of a garbage truck) and evaluating ergonomics related to collection activities, helping to inform regulatory guidelines.
And what about recycling or waste diversion, the fastest growing sectors of the industry? Projects under way at the University of Georgia and internally at EREF are evaluating the effects of human behavior on recycling at public venues, developing a national database of recycling/diversion policies and exploring the effect of population demographics on recycling rates using data collected from individual truck routes. Such efforts aim to define how one can maximize recycling and establish benchmarks that can be used to validate or compare against established goals. Additional work is evaluating the feasibility of waste conversion or diversion technologies like gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion of organic waste.
These examples represent the tip of the iceberg in the rapidly expanding realm of “garbage science. ” As the call for more sustainable practices grows louder, the need for solid data and factual information on solid waste grows. Research is critical in moving the field in new directions. Research provides a check against unfounded propaganda from lobbying or special interest organizations. Research improves the bottom line through cost savings, greater efficiency and increased revenue.
All of the projects noted in this article have been funded in part or in whole by EREF. For additional information please contact the author or visit www.erefdn.org.