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Monica Rodriguez Morris

University of Wisconsin-Madison, PhD
Fiessinger Scholar 2021

Tracking Waste: Improving the EoL Scenarios of PLA CupsProject Description:
In a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a tool used to measure potential environmental impacts of a product or service, the various environmental impacts at different stages of the life cycle are evaluated. One of these stages is the End of Life (EoL), which is the ultimate disposal the product or service reaches. When modeling this stage in LCA, researchers use “stylized scenarios” to calculate the impacts. But these scenarios don’t necessarily reflect the true EoL of the products or services. For example, a researcher may use 100% of the material going to a landfill as their scenario, but some portion may end up as litter, another in the recycling as recycling contamination while and some may be reused.

In an effort to better understand the true EoL, Morris will track the movement of cups across the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to identify their final destination when they reach the EoL stage. Researchers will use stickers that have a small chip to track the “compostable” cups (made of polylactic acid, PLA). These tracked cups will be used and then discarded into various waste containers (compost, recycling and regular waste) across the UW-Madison campus buildings.

Through the data gathered, Morris will observe how the cups move through the UW Madison waste management system and where they ultimately end up, which researchers hypothesize is the landfill. This is hypothesized as it is currently the acceptable alternative as they are not accepted into local compost facilities nor are they recycled locally. Ultimately, this data could help researchers when modeling the EoL of compostable cups in an LCA. This will make LCA results more reliable when decision makers are tasked with selecting sustainable materials in their facilities.

Monica Rodriguez Morris is from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She attended the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, where she completed her BS in Environmental Engineering in 2018. Monica is currently pursuing a PhD at UW-Madison with Dr. Andrea Hicks, working in sustainability research with a focus on human behavior and waste management. She was the SWANA Caribbean Chapter’s young professional liaison for three years. In her role, she helped organize community events and had a great time meeting people from the local solid waste industry. She also volunteered in various community events. Two of her favorites were the beach cleanup day and doing water quality sampling in the San Juan Bay Estuary. She is now part of the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) community at UW Madison.