Science that Goes to Waste

HISTORICALLY, MONEY SPENT ON SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH in the waste management industry has been limited. When asked challenging questions about waste, its cost and the environment, solid waste managers often shrugged their shoulders. But today, qualified answers are beginning to arrive, thanks to the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF).

Alexandria, Va.-based EREF, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, hopes to stimulate a dialogue about waste management by funding research projects and several scholarships. One of the foundation's first completed projects, for example, has helped to identify how recycling fits with environmental management.

Making a Model

In the late 1990s, EREF awarded $429,000 to Professors Robert Ham of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Mort Barlaz of North Carolina State University, Raleigh. The funds enabled them to conduct a life-cycle inventory of municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills and to develop a computer model that evaluates environmental effects of landfilling.

Ham and Barlaz analyzed several materials and controls that characterize an object's life span. The research tracked the materials and the use of resources when a tree is cut down in the forest, sent to a mill, deposited for various uses including construction and paper manufacturing, and finally, when it is disposed of in a landfill. The professors also mapped the environmental effects of the fuel emissions created by the saw that cut the tree down, as well as identified how landfill decomposition of a piece of paper made from the tree affects the environment.

Prior to the EREF project, no research had explored such details. The computer model for the project was completed in June 1999. It now is being used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., to generate even more comprehensive models that compare the environmental effects of landfilling, incineration, recycling and composting.

“The EPA found the landfill component useful because they did not have the expertise to work out that side of the equation,” says Edward Repa, EREF director of environmental programs.

Using the computer model, the EPA study also has concluded that recycling can become counterproductive. Although recycling is generally good for the environment, it sometimes consumes too many resources for transportation and labor costs, and dumps too many emissions into the air, the research found.

“EREF helps academia and industry work together and develop ideas that can make industry more effective and more profitable,” says Ronald J. McCracken, president of RJM Waste Equipment Co., Easley, S.C., and immediate past chairman of EREF. “The science we are working on can help develop better public policies for the waste management industry.”

Picking Projects

One of the benefits of finding funding for a research project within the industry is that an insider will better understand a project's benefits. EREF solicits proposals from universities and firms to determine which projects to fund, says EREF vice chairman Robert P. Stearns of SCS Engineers, Long Beach, Calif. “A foundation committee reviews and rates proposals and selects projects that answer industry questions, improve the way we manage solid waste, and benefit the environment,” he says.

For example, because EREF recognized that investigating a bioreactor landfill operation would be beneficial but expensive, it decided to alleviate some of the costs. Michigan State University, East Lansing, now is using a $500,000 EREF grant to design and operate an anaerobic bioreactor landfill cell.

“The EPA is looking at whether bioreactors work or don't work,” Repa says, “and researching the emissions created by bioreactor landfills to which you add liquids to accelerate decomposition.”

Michigan State's project has built its bioreactor cell from the ground up, a feature considered important by scientists. Preliminary results may become available by mid-2003. Within several years, researchers may understand whether the bioreactor concept is valid.

EREF funds smaller projects, too. In 2001, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, received $38,000 to develop an electronic nose to sniff out the distinguishing characteristics of landfill odors versus other odors that might waft through a community. Also, EREF has issued $172,000 in scholarships for post-graduate work.

Who Funds EREF?

The National Science Foundation (NSF), Alexandria, Va., says most spending on scientific research in the United States is provided by private industry. A 1998 NSF study found that industry supplied 65.1 percent of $221 billion spent on research in that year. The federal government chipped in 30 percent, and the academic community paid the rest.

EREF has funded or committed approximately $4.5 million to about two dozen research projects and six scholarships to date, says Michael Cagney, EREF president and chief executive.

Although it is now independent, the EREF originally was chartered by the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C., in 1992.

“Before we existed, scientific research focused on the waste industry was almost negligible,” Cagney says. “The EIA recognized the value of a research and science foundation. Since our founding, we've raised about $12 million. Our most recent capital campaign will end in June, and we'll achieve our goal of $8 million.”

Contributions have come from 90 donors including companies, individuals and the federal government, through congressional appropriations.

The largest contributors include Houston-based Waste Management Inc., which pitched in $2 million; French hauler SITA, which has contributed $1.3 million; and Mack Trucks Inc., Allentown, Pa., which has made in-kind contributions of $659,000. Individuals have contributed $250 to more than $1 million.

Waste equipment manufacturers also have provided support, donating equipment for the foundation's fundraising auctions, which have raised $4 million.

The troubled economy has hurt fundraising and has driven the EREF's endowment down to $2.4 million. Nevertheless, EREF continues to collect accolades.

“The foundation is beginning to reach beyond the solid waste industry,” says Kevin Walbridge, a Republic Services Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., regional vice president and EREF treasurer. “Today, the projects that the foundation evaluates and funds are for the good of all.”

Rep. Thomas E. Petri, R-Wis., has said the foundation's work is of “critical importance — now and for future generations — of properly managing our wastes, creating sustainable recycling markets, conserving resources and protecting the environment.”

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor.


The Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) has funded more than 24 research projects during the past several years. Four of those projects will be published this year. Keep an eye out for new scientific findings in the following areas:

  • With the help of a $500,000 EREF grant, Michigan State University, East Landing, has built a 1.5-acre bioreactor cell from scratch, installed monitoring equipment and filled the cell with trash. In this undertaking, scientists hope to evaluate the design and operation of anaerobic bioreactors and to quantify their emissions. Preliminary results from this research will arrive by the middle of 2003.

  • GeoSyntec Consultants, Atlanta, is using a $461,000 EREF grant to develop a universal approach to managing and defining the end of post-closure care at municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills in the United States. Results will appear in fall 2003.

  • R.D. Gibbons, Terra-Dynamics Inc., Lewiston, N.Y., and Severn Trent Laboratories Inc., Philadelphia, are using a $300,000 grant to collect and compile leachate data over time to determine how operational and physical attributes of landfills alter leachate characteristics. The consortium will publish its findings this winter.

  • EREF has provided $30,000 to the University of Central Florida, Orlando, to explain what happens to nitrogen in a bioreactor landfill. As part of the research, scientists are tracking the transformation of nitrogen in a well-managed, comprehensively monitored bioreactor landfill. A report quantifying the natural removal of nitrogen will reveal the results late in 2003.