EREF Blog

Breaking It Down: An Investigation into Accelerating the Degradation of Lignocellulose Material in Landfills

A long way from the antiquated “holes in the ground”, today’s landfills are highly engineered waste repositories with extensive liner systems, leachate and gas collection systems and more. Among the important facets of modern landfills, the gas collection system plays a valuable role in capturing landfill gas before it can enter the atmosphere. This collected gas can then be converted into energy, helping to dispel assumptions that landfills are the antithesis of sustainability.

As waste decomposes, it releases various types of gas, predominately methane and carbon dioxide. Decomposition of the waste plays a huge role in the amount of gas that is able to be captured. A number of materials, such as food waste and other organics, degrade rapidly, allowing for capture of the landfill gas. On the other hand, materials which do not degrade rapidly in a landfill often contribute to greenhouse gas emissions because there comes a point when it is no longer feasible to continue collecting the gas.

A LOOK AT BACTERIA AND ENZYMES TO INCREASE DEGRADATION

A recent study conducted by former EREF Scholar Dr. Muaaz Wright-Syed and Cardiff University, specifically investigated options for breaking down lignocellulose-rich waste (e.g. newspaper and wood), which does not degrade quickly leading to gas emissions. Fortunately, there are certain microorganisms that break down the lignocellulose – predominately white-rot fungi and some bacteria.

Researchers found that they could pull the enzymes responsible for breaking down waste out of the white-rot fungi and decided to use these enzymes and the bacteria that has been proven to break down lignocellulose as part of their study.

In an effort to circulate these enzymes and bacteria throughout the waste so they can do their job, they are combined with leachate, which is then sprayed on top of the waste or pumped into the landfill through holes drilled through the waste.

The study also investigated practical application and how the composition of the waste in a landfill affected the flow of the augmented leachate through waste. While previous studies of this lignocellulose degradation have shown success, they have been conducted in controlled environments and adapting these systems to real world conditions has proven less effective. One of the biggest issues with the practical application of these systems is the heterogeneous makeup of the waste in landfills. Waste composition in studies has been homogeneous, making it easier for the leachate and the bacteria to travel throughout the entirety of the waste.

THE RESULTS AND THEIR REAL-WORLD IMPLICATIONS

Results from this study indicate that the bacteria were able to break down all lignocellulose-containing material tested, while the enzymes degraded all material except wood.

Given the greater success they had with the bacteria, researchers then applied it to waste with a homogenous composition, finding an increase in gas production. However, when applied to waste with a heterogeneous composition, they found it was difficult for the bacteria to do its job and spread to all parts of the waste due to preferential flow.

In practical application, researchers submit that in landfill cells with homogeneous waste composition, the bacteria has the potential to enhance gas production and therefore greater energy production. However, in cases of landfill cells with heterogeneous waste composition, researchers suggest mechanical pre-treatment, or homogenization of the waste prior to building landfill cells. Lastly, the work may also have implications for stabilizing organics left in the landfill after closure as a post-closure.

EREF Study Shows Average MSW Tip Fee Decreased in 2020

Results from the 2020 EREF analysis of MSW landfill tip fees indicate a 3 percent decrease in the national average to $53.72 per ton.

EREF recently completed its 4th annual MSW landfill tip fee report. Using its database of 1,540 active Subtitle D municipal solid waste landfills (MSWLFs) in the U.S., the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) created a sample of facilities that was used for surveying landfill owners regarding tip fee information for MSW disposal.

The 2020 results indicate the national average tip fee of $53.72 per ton was 3 percent lower than the $55.36 per ton reported in 2019. In 2020, the fees for the Midwest and Mountains/Plains regions converged and were nearly the same at $47.85 and $47.83, respectively. The Pacific and the Northeast continue to have the highest fees per ton in the U.S., but the Pacific saw a decrease of $1.00 per ton, or 1.4 percent, and the Northeast increased $2.16 per ton, or 3.25 percent. The Mountains/Plains region had the greatest change in fees this year ($2.88 per ton, minus 5.7 percent). The table below indicates average tip fee by region.

EREF’s regional analysis indicates tip fees can vary widely regionally across the U.S. The 2020 report also shows that there are large variations within each region and within individual states. To assess the variability within an individual state, EREF performed a sensitivity analysis on the relationship between population and tip fees in North Carolina. Metropolitan areas (U.S. Census statistical areas consisting of a county or counties with at least one urban area and a population of at least 50,000) had the lowest tip fees with an average of $37.99 per ton and was lower than the state average of $45.97 per ton. Tip fees in the less populated areas of the state, those not in a metropolitan or micropolitan area, were greater than the state average at $57.77 per ton. While a larger population and associated increase in waste generation could have an impact on tip fees, additional statistical analyses suggest a limited relationship between population and tip fees and that other factors are more influential.

EREF’s free report, “Analysis of MSW Landfill Tipping Fees: 2020,” shares additional 2020 tipping fee data.

Landfill operators discuss PFAS management, regulations and the need for more research

Now that the federal government has previewed new plans to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), sometimes known as “forever chemicals,” landfill operators say they feel stuck between wanting more data and research before enacting future policy and needing clearer metrics to ensure safe PFAS management in the meantime.

That’s just one of several insights about PFAS that came out of an EREF Science Session webinar, which was described in a recent article in Waste Dive. Other insights indicate that operators believe that landfills, which utilize highly engineered liner systems, are capable of capturing PFAS and preventing leaching into groundwater. Additionally, given the variety of products and materials which contain PFAS, discussions are needed to stop PFAS generation at the manufacturing level.

The full article can be read here.

EREF’s New Science Sessions Puts a Conversational Twist on Solid Waste Education

Click here for a PDF of this release.

Raleigh, NC (January 7, 2021) – The Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) is excited to announce the inception of a new solid waste education series entitled EREF Science Sessions, which will kick off in mid-January.

In a time when interactions occur primarily online and Zoom fatigue has become a real concern, the Science Sessions aim to provide the content solid waste professionals need in brief, interactive segments lasting around 45 minutes to an hour.

These sessions will take a variety of forms, forgoing the typical presentation/webinar- style and opting for more interactive models such as interviews, panels and Q&A.

The first set of topics centers on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and emerging contaminants. While data and information surrounding the topic abounds, each session aims to bring new content to the table and focus on the role of the waste industry in the PFAS and emerging contaminants conversation.

Currently, 8 sessions have been confirmed with more anticipated to be lined up. Subtopics include:

  • Industry perspectives on PFAS management
  • PFAS policy
  • Management strategies
  • PFAS concentrations in domestic wastewater and leachate
  • Effective leachate treatment methods
  • PFAS stabilization and solidification
  • Exposure and health implications
  • And more to come!

While PFAS is the focus of the initial set of sessions, other topics will be added to the docket later in 2021.

EREF’s first session, entitled In the Room When It Happened: Industry Perspectives on PFAS, will be a panel comprised of Joe Benco (Republic Services), Sam Nicolai (Casella Waste) and David Pepper (GFL Environmental). This session will be held January 21 at 1 pm ET – registration is open!

Visit the EREF website to learn more and register.

Looking for a value-driven way to build your brand awareness? Become a Science Sessions sponsor! Sponsors receive a select amount of attendee spots with their sponsorship. Send an e-mail to events@erefdn.org to sponsor or learn more.

Thank you to our current Science Sessions sponsors, Golder and Republic Services!

EREF is a 501(c)3 class charity that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives for waste management practices to benefit industry participants and the communities they serve. For more complete information on EREF funded research, its scholarship program and how to donate to this great cause, visit erefdn.org.

 

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Media Contact:

Catherine Ardoin, Communications Manager

Phone: 919.861.6876 ext. 109

Email: cardoin@erefdn.org

Shopping Online this Holiday Season? Recycle those Cardboard Boxes, Expert Says

recycle cardboard this holidayOnline shoppers can help combat climate change and reduce deforestation by recycling cardboard boxes and other packaging materials this holiday season.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge, a growing number of consumers across the country are shopping online this holiday season – a trend that could have severe environmental consequences if packaging materials aren’t properly disposed of.

“Packaging materials, whether they’re made from paper or plastic, are very important because they help protect products,” said Richard Venditti, the Elis-Signe Olsson Professor of Pulp and Paper Science and Engineering at NC State’s College of Natural Resources. “But some of these materials, especially plastics, are still making their way into trash cans instead of recycling bins.”

Venditti, whose areas of expertise include paper recycling and environmental life cycle analysis, added that packaging materials in trash cans are sent to landfills where non-biodegradable materials occupy space for centuries and biodegradable materials break down and release greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

In the United States, more than 95% of the packages shipped to the country’s 200 million online shoppers are sent in containerboard – cardboard and corrugated containers. The use of cardboard and other packaging materials is expected to increase in the coming years as online sales continue to grow, according to Venditti. Between January and November of this year alone, American consumers spent about $547 billion online. That’s an increase of roughly 33% from the same period in 2019.

Several companies are working to reduce packaging waste and find more sustainable alternatives. For example, Amazon – which ships an average of 608 million packages each year – has eliminated more than 665,000 tons of packaging materials and more than 1.18 billion shipping boxes since 2008 through its Frustration-Free Packaging program, which provides consumers with recyclable boxes that are easy-to-open and free of excess materials such as plastic bindings and wire ties.

Venditti said recycling is one of the most efficient methods available for both retailers and consumers to reduce the number of cardboard boxes in the waste stream. It not only conserves energy and natural resources but also helps reduce pollution.

Cardboard, like other paper-based products, is manufactured from cellulose fibers extracted primarily from trees. “Paper and paperboard recycling makes more efficient use of our forest resources and avoids some of the environmental burdens associated with making cardboard from trees,” Venditti said.

More importantly, when consumers recycle packaging, it reduces the amount of cardboard in landfills – and the amount of greenhouse gases that it emits during decomposition. Cardboard packaging that is sent to landfills releases some fugitive methane that is not captured in landfill collections systems. Methane has a global warming potential that’s 20 times higher than carbon dioxide over the course of 100 years. It’s estimated that when consumers recycle 1 ton of cardboard, they save over 9 cubic yards of landfill space.

The percentage of cardboard boxes that Americans recycle has increased from 55% in 1993 to 92% in 2019. The remaining 8% of cardboard boxes is sent to landfills because it’s unsuitable for recycling, since it may be disposed of in remote areas, or contaminated with food or other material, according to Venditti.

“Paper is definitely a success in the materials recycling universe, with recovery rates far higher than plastics or glass and other materials,” Venditti said. “The recycling levels that we’re seeing with these boxes are incredible. But we need people to be more effective in their overall recycling, especially with other materials such as plastics and metals.”

Most Americans have access to community curbside or drop-off recycling for paper and paperboard packaging. But as consumers receive more products directly from online retailers, they’re recycling less and throwing away more. Part of the reason is the confusion over what is recyclable, according to Venditti.

However, while consumer behavior certainly plays a role in the country’s ongoing packaging waste, recycling programs in the U.S. face a bigger challenge. For the past quarter century, the U.S. and other countries around the world have sent a significant portion of their recyclable discards to China for recycling. But in 2018, China implemented strict restrictions on imported waste, including plastic, mixed paper and cardboard. This has left many municipalities and companies with nowhere to send their waste for recycling.

“China was purchasing recyclable materials for rather high prices, but now they’re not buying from us anymore,” Venditti said. “As a result, the price for recycled paper has decreased dramatically. What that means is that collectors and haulers don’t get as much money for their efforts. They’re not going to go the extra mile to collect the fringe materials that are on the borderline of profitability, so now we’re experiencing an excess buildup of waste materials.”

To address this issue, Venditti is spearheading a study that will examine the potential use of low-grade mixed paper waste in cardboard packaging in order to increase demand for recycled materials. The study is funded by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a Raleigh-based organization that supports solid waste research and education initiatives.

“A key challenge in the recycling industry is creating end-market demand for lower value/quality recyclables,” said Bryan Staley, president and CEO of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation. “Dr. Venditti’s research aims to strengthen pathways to increase recycled content using these materials. This allows for increased circularity of materials that otherwise would have limited value and improves overall sustainability.”

One of the study’s primary objectives is to better understand consumer impressions of packaging that contains paper waste, according to Venditti.

“Most cardboard boxes are brown with a consistent texture. But we’re using low-grade mixed paper waste to create boxes that have lighter speckles that might be recognizable as copy paper or magazine paper,” he said. “If a consumer sees a box with recycled content on the outside, how does that make them feel? Are they more likely to think that the packaging and therefore the product and company are more environmentally friendly? That’s what we want to know.”

In addition, Venditti and his research team are analyzing how the use of low-grade mixed paper waste impacts the physical properties of cardboard boxes, including strength and durability. Preliminary results show that the physical properties decrease by about 20%. The research team is currently working to compensate for that loss by exploring the addition of recycling process changes and additives.

Initial results from the study will likely be published sometime in 2021. Although the study is funded for 18 months, Venditti expects it to extend into the future as students and colleagues conduct additional research.

“The research, showing the benefits of low quality waste in paper packaging, is expected to demonstrate to companies a green and effective way to protect their products that have the added benefit of projecting a positive image of the product,” he said. “As the population of the world increases and demands for packaging increase, research projects to develop solutions like this one are critical for society.”

Written by Andrew Moore, College of Natural Sciences, NC State University

5 Reasons to Knuckle Down on Your Recycling in 2021

5 reasons to knuckle down on your recycling

 

Do you want to save the world? You don’t have to be an Avenger to make a difference. When you recycle, and recycle right, you help make the world a cleaner, greener place. Below we outline 5 reasons to knuckle down so you can start improving your recycling in 2021.

Contamination costs money (and even other recyclables).

Although you might feel good tossing something into the recycling bin, that good feeling could be short-lived if your discard doesn’t belong there. When you place something in the bin that shouldn’t be there, you create contamination. What does this mean? Often, contamination can lead to increased recycling facility downtime, equipment damage and low-quality or rejected bales. All these consequences of contamination cost operators time and money – a cost passed down to you.

Recycling incorrectly can lead to worker injury.

When incorrect items enter a materials recovery facility (MRF; i.e. a recycling facility), they can create unsafe conditions for workers. Think about the plastic film bags you get at the grocery store. While you may wish that those could be recycled, when they go through the sorter they become tangled, leading to a halt in operations and requiring workers to climb onto equipment to untangle the bags. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, MRF worker injuries and illnesses occur at a rate of 3.6 per 100 full-time employees.

Certain items can cause fires in facilities and collection vehicles.

When your batteries die or your laptop finally gives out, where do you put them? Although a number of products are recyclable, they don’t belong in your recycling bin. In part, this is due to the dangerous conditions they create in a collection vehicle or at a facility. For example, research demonstrates that batteries can cause fires at recycling facilities. In fact, preliminary results from an EREF research survey indicate that 68% of respondents have experienced at least one fire at their facility in the past year.

Forgoing recycling can contribute to greenhouse gases.

The latest data from the EPA indicates that gross U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled 6,677 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – a 2.9% increase from the previous year. However, participation in curbside recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 38% compared to landfilling with energy recovery.

Recycling availability is not an invitation to be wasteful.

A study by Catlin and Wang, 2012, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, evaluated waste generation when a recycling bin was available. In an office setting, researchers found that the availability of recycling bin resulted in an 82% increase in paper usage. Before grabbing a handful of paper, remember that not all materials can be recycled forever. Each time paper goes through the recycling process, it loses quality and integrity. In fact, paper can only be recycled 5 – 7 times.

There is good news! Now that you know the 5 reasons to knuckle down on your recycling, you can take the steps to start improving your recycling in 2021. Take a moment to educate yourself. Your state and county waste management websites are great resources for more information. See what items belong in your recycling bin and where to recycle items, such as batteries.

New EREF Named Scholarship Honors Tom J. Fatjo Jr.

The Environmental Research & Education Foundation’s (EREF) Scholarship Program has provided financial support to over 80 students since its inception in 1998. A number of the scholarships offered were established in memory of those who have played a vital role in the waste industry. This year, donations from companies and individuals from the waste industry have funded a named scholarship honoring Tom J. Fatjo Jr., who passed away earlier this year. The first Tom J. Fatjo Jr. scholar will be named in 2020.

Click here for more information (PDF)

Definition Dilemma: A Look at the Varying Recycling Definitions

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Of the 49 states that have recycling definitions, EREF identified 18 DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS! States use these when creating their waste reduction goals and measuring to see if they met their goals.

Check out this infographic on the differences in state recycling definitions!

Recycle Right: Are you Falling for these Recycling Myths?

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When you hear phrases like “think green” or “environmental stewardship,” recycling is likely one of the first things that comes to mind. With all of the pseudo-science and myths out there, you might be confused on how to recycle and even the definition of recycling.

Check out this infographic in which EREF addresses common misconceptions associated with recycling!

EREF Moves in New Strategic Direction, Expanding into the Sustainable Materials Management Space

The Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) has held a long history of funding innovative research that the industry needs to move forward and adapt to changes in policy and management. The Foundation will be taking this to the next level in the coming months, stepping further into the sustainable materials management space.

Click here for more information (PDF)