University of Iowa engineers receive $1 million to turn wastepaper into plastic


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Elizabeth Miglin | March 25, 2021

Earlier this month, University of Iowa engineers Xuan Song, Chao Wang, and H.S. Udaykumar, in partnership with Impossible Objects, Inc., received nearly $1 million from the REMADE Institute for their project to improve the speed and reduce the labor costs of remanufacturing recycled wastepaper. 

The project aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart additive manufacturing (AM) technology to turn recycled paper and cardboard into high-value fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composites. Aerospace, automotive, marine and construction industries use FRPs in most advanced engineering structures. Increasingly, FRPs have replaced heavier and more expensive infrastructure materials and systems, such as steel and concrete. 

The project is one of only 24 chosen in the latest round of funding by the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership created by the United States Department of Energy. The institute provided a total of $43 million in research funding to support the development of new waste technologies in order to encourage a transition towards a circular economy.

Manufacturing currently makes up 22% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. Song, Wang and Udaykumar hope to address this and that their research will encourage widespread adoption of recycling wastepaper into FRP plastic. 

U.S. Ships More Plastic Waste Overseas Despite New Global Restrictions


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Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021

Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.

Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.

The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.

The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.

The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.

Iowa Senate Subcommittee Advances Plan to Let Grocers Opt Out of the Bottle Bill


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Nicole Welle | February 22, 2021

An Iowa Senate subcommittee passed legislation last week that would allow grocers to stop accepting cans and bottles if they are within 20 miles of the nearest redemption center.

The bill’s purpose is to address the concerns of grocers and other beverage retailers that wish to opt out of the bottle bill. However, some worry that the new bill would not be convenient for consumers and encourage recycling. Sen. Claire Celsi, a democrat from West Des Moines, told the committee that it would also fail to reduce the amount of litter going into Iowa’s landfills and waterways, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Iowa Sierra Club representative Jess Mazour agreed with Sen. Celsi, adding that the new bill should be expanded to include containers like water, iced tea and sports drink bottles.

“We know that the bottle deposit law is wildly popular with Iowans and that you should expand it, not take this opportunity to gut it and make it less convenient for Iowans across the state,” Mazour added.

Other sections of the bill would require the Alcoholic Beverage Division (ABD) to track unclaimed refunds and enforce the new law. Any unclaimed deposits would also go into a “taxpayer relief fund,” preventing distributors from continuing to keep them. However, Jon Murphy of the Iowa Beverage Association said that the ABD might lack “enforcement capabilities,” an issue that the Iowa DNR is facing with the current bill.

The proposed legislation will now move to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee for consideration.

Electronic Waste Generation is Shrinking Despite Growing Dependence on Technology


Pile of discarded smartphone and tablet screens.
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Nicole Welle | January 4, 2021

A new study revealed a 10% decline in electronic waste (e-waste) generated in the United States since 2015 despite increasing dependence on smartphones and other technology.

The study, published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, also found that the total number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is leveling off or declining due to the versatility of modern devices. Many devices, like gaming consoles and smartphones, now have multiple uses and features, so people only need one device to meet their needs rather than two or three. For example, individuals no longer need a separate camera, camcorder and cellphone now that smartphones have quality cameras built in. The decline in e-waste can also be attributed to the phasing out of bigger, older products like computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions, according to a Yale E360 article.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream. While a decline in waste generation is positive, it does raise concerns over the way current e-waste recycling regulations in the U.S. are structured. Currently, only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most set their targets based on mass, according to the Yale E360 article. Because the total mass of e-waste output is declining, meeting those targets could become more complicated.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that laws should shift their focus from simply keeping electronics with high lead and mercury levels out of landfills to finding ways to recover useful elements from these devices and reuse them. Elements like cobalt and indium are relatively rare and are commonly used in electronic devices, so making the effort to recover and recycle them would serve as a positive first step toward transforming e-waste into a resource and ensure a domestic supply in the U.S. It would also reduce the need for mining operations that cause devastating environmental destruction.

DNR Denies Grocers’ Move to Pull Back on Redemption Center Rules


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Nicole Welle | October 5, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s petition to change rules on where customers can exchange cans and bottles for deposits last week.

The current law requires retailers who sell cans and bottles to accept them back unless they can refer customers to a local redemption center. The trip to the redemption center must take ten minutes or less, and Iowa grocers are working to change the rule from a ten-minute trip to a 15-minute one way drive. This would reduce the number of stores in the state required to take back cans and bottles for redemption and force customers in some areas to drive a longer distance.

The Iowa DNR denied the petition in part because grocery store customers who would be affected by this change across the state have not had a chance to be heard on the issue, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article. Many supporters of the current Bottle Bill, like the nonprofit Cleaner Iowa, praised the decision, noting that Iowa already has very few redemption centers that are accessible to large numbers of people. Grocery stores are the most popular and convenient place to redeem bottle and cans for most people.

The grocer’s association filed another petition on Tuesday and said that it would look into alternative actions moving forward. The new petition filed with the DNR is seeking to force other retailers who also sell bottles and cans, like gas stations and hardware stores, to also abide by the current rules. The petition includes a long list of retailers who the association believes are ignoring the law. The DNR has yet to make a decision on this issue.

Iowa City Climate Fest – Day Four: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and Repair


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Nicole Welle | September 24, 2020

The Iowa City Climate Fest kicks off day four today with activities that focus on keeping non-recyclable materials out of recycling bins and repairable items out of landfills.

One in four items sent to recycling centers aren’t recyclable, according to the Iowa City Climate Fest page. To help combat this problem, today’s personal challenge asks people to try out a DIY Home Recycling Audit to check their recycling for misplaced items that frequent Iowa City’s recycling bins. Once people know which materials to look for, they can let their friends and family know to help stop misplaced materials from ending up in local recycling centers.

For today’s community event, locals are encouraged to check out a map of repair resources in and around Iowa City that shows where they can take their damaged goods and appliances that could otherwise end up in the local landfill. Opting to repair damaged items rather than throwing away and replacing them is both good for the environment and a great way to save money. For those who would rather fix their broken items themselves, there is also a virtual Fit-It Fair with instructions on how to do it and a map showing area resources where tools and equipment are available to borrow or rent.

Check out the Iowa City Climate Fest page to learn more about how you can get involved and help celebrate the ways the Iowa City community is doing their part to address climate change.

Proposed Changes to Iowa’s Bottle Bill Could Make it Harder for Rural Iowans to Recycle


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Nicole Welle | May 28, 2020

Iowa’s grocery industry recently proposed changes to a 40-year-old bill that requires grocery and convenience stores to take back cans and bottles for recycling.

One of these proposals would allow stores to stop accepting cans and bottles if there is a redemption center within a 15-mile radius of their store. Currently, the law states that they do not have to accept these recyclables if there is a redemption center within a 10-minute drive of their store, according to an article published in The Gazette.

Grocers urged the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to make this change just a day after Gov. Kim Reynolds extended the suspension of the bottle bill requirement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This change could lead to an increase in litter and the number of cans and bottles going into landfills since recycling would become more difficult for rural Iowans. It could also put a strain on smaller redemption centers that are not prepared to take in larger quantities of recyclables.

Some Iowan’s also raised concerns over a part of the proposal that would waive a requirement that retailers establish a written agreement with a redemption center before they are allowed to stop accepting cans and bottles. If that requirement is waived, retailers could simply tell the DNR that there is a redemption center within the 15-mile radius without the need for documentation. A lack of paper trail would make it difficult to require stores to begin accepting recyclables again if a redemption center were to go out of business, according to Troy Willard, owner of the Can Shed that services markets in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

The DNR has not yet set a deadline for making a decision on the proposed changes.

Veggie Rx coming to Johnson County


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Kasey Dresser| September 30, 2019

A $50,000 grant from MidWestOne Bank has been awarded to Johnson County community organizations for the creation of the Veggie Rx Pilot Program. This 26-week program aims to help individuals with diet-related diseases by providing them with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Participants of the program will receive care from the University of Iowa Health Care’s upstream clinic and their food from either the Coralville or North Liberty Community Food Pantry. With routine access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, individualized dietary guidance, and educational activities related to healthy food, the participants will hopefully see positive changes in their daily life. Food will be purchased directly from Sundog Farm in Solon, Wild Woods in Iowa City, and Echollective in Mechanicsville.

MidWestOne Bank CEO Charlie Funk said the bank was “delighted to lend support to the Veggie Rx Program,” which will give back not only to local residents but provide business to local farms as well.

Experts encourage towns to invest in composting


Photo by Plan for Opportunity, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | August 2nd, 2019

Composting all organic waste could eliminate one-third of materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators, according to a study from Composting in America, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research, and Policy Center and Frontier Group.

The reports says that each year the U.S. disposes of enough organic material  to fill 18-wheelers stretching from New York to Los Angeles ten times over. Only 326 U.S. towns nationwide provide curbside food pickup, leaving people no option but to throw food scraps in the trash.

The report says that increasing composting would help replenish soil and prevent erosion, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and help combat climate change. Composting excess organic material would help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return nutrients to the soil. 

In Iowa, some small compost facilities are exempt from solid-waste permits, but must adhere to a list of requirements: facilities must be greater than 500 feet away from any inhabited residence, outside of wetlands, 200 feet away from any public well, and runoff from the composting operation must be correctly managed – according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The national report lists several things that would make composting more accessible and user-friendly, saying that towns should offer curbside pickup for organic waste, make composting programs affordable, require commercial organic-waste producers to compost excess materials, and to encourage local markets to buy back compost materials to distribute to public projects or community projects.

Beware “greenwashing” this Earth Day


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Watch out! Consumerism can be made to appear “green” (flickr). 

Julia Poska| April 22, 2019

“Earth Day deals to save money and help the planet,” one headline reads. “10 products that will help you buy less this Earth Day,” says another. Other articles advertise “clean” beauty products or “green” technology.

Don’t fall for it; buying anything, especially anything you don’t need, ultimately contributes to fossil fuel emissions, resource consumption and the planet’s pervasive trash problem.

“Greenwashing” occurs when an institution puts more resources and effort into marketing itself as eco-friendly than it does actually minimizing its environmental impact. This doesn’t only happen on Earth Day, of course. Many companies, public figures and organizations  feature “sustainability missions” on their websites year long,  making vague claims about their “zero-waste journey” or “environmental stewardship,” with little concrete information about the implementation or outcomes of such initiatives.

Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter for Mother Jones, wrote today that she “hates” Earth Day, mostly because it has devolved from a day of protest and activism to a day when anyone can claim to care. Every April, her inbox floods with PR pitches promoting  Earth Day news from companies that she knows are less-than-sustainable 364 days of the year.

“Earth Day provides a fine opportunity to showcase how [a company’s] generally negligible corporate gestures demonstrate their commitment to ‘going green,'” she said.

Reducing consumption by fully utilizing what we already own or sharing with others is far better for the planet than consuming new products, even if those products are well-intended.  So think critically about the messages you come across. Use up all your shampoo before you invest in that more natural version, buy a used shirt instead of a brand new “organic” tee and forego using a straw at all over buying a metal one.

And if you want to absolutely minimize your carbon footprint today, Quartz writer Ephrat Livni makes the case for “sitting perfectly still” at home with the lights and air conditioning turned off, so that “ever-so-briefly you are not contributing to climate change.”