When You Give an Engineer a Problem….

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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Valerie Zivkovich and Olivia Dubin, seniors majoring in Plastics Engineering Technology.

Engineers are problem solvers by nature. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with a recycling conundrum, students in Penn State Behrend’s School of Engineering saw an opportunity.

The quandary

China, which is the largest consumer of recycled material from the United States, has significantly reduced the amount and types of material it will accept and introduced strong restrictions on contamination, i.e. trash mixed in with recyclables.

This has forced a wave of changes in the U.S. recycling industry.

“Waste Management has had to adjust the way it recycles materials to ensure those materials pass through numerous quality checks and has also found it necessary to pass on increased costs to customers, including Behrend,” said Randall Geering, senior director of business and operations. “The impact of these changes is being felt everywhere, not just on our campus.”

The bottom line: Recycling is becoming harder and more expensive for consumers and businesses to do and unprofitable for material recovery facilities.

It is not hard to see how this could lead to complete breakdown in the recycling system.

Seeds of change

Recycling and the waste generated by landscaping containers is what led Valerie Zivkovich, a senior from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, to the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program at Penn State Behrend.

“I worked at a vegetable farm in high school, and we were constantly throwing out plastic containers that the plants were in,” Zivkovich said. “We couldn’t reuse them because of potential contaminants in the soil, and I understood that, but I thought there had to be a better way. I wanted to develop a better plastic for agricultural use.”

Zivkovich and her capstone project partner, fellow PLET senior Olivia Dubin, had heard the uproar from the Penn State Behrend community about the prospect of no longer recycling and realized the campus could recycle its own plastic bottles.

At a campus-wide meeting with Waste Management officials, Zivkovich and Dubin presented a proposal to collect, clean, and pelletize bottles into raw material that could then be used to create new products.

“Basically, we’ll collect plastic bottles—primarily PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene) such as pop bottles, Starbucks cups, etc.—then grind them up into tiny pellets and use or resell them to a vendor,” Zivkovich said.

They worked on their initial plan with Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of engineering.

“I think this could work because we already have most of the equipment and skills in our plastics department,” Williams said. “We are unique in that we have both a plastics factory and a research facility. This combination of resources makes Behrend a great place to test something like this.”

Waste Management agreed and awarded the students a $3,000 Think Green grant to help get the program going.

“The recycling industry is changing, and it’s going to take projects like this one to help identify different markets for material,” said Erika Deyarmin-Young, public affairs coordinator at Waste Management.

Williams is excited about the possibilities.

“I think this initiative is a valuable teaching tool and a demonstration of how engineers can make things better,” he said. “It will also give us tools we can use to study ways to handle post-consumer waste. I think there is a lot of research opportunity in developing automatic sorting technology and material handling of plastics.”

“As PLET majors, we learn about the impact and importance of recycling,” Dubin said. “We are excited to have come up with a solution that our whole campus could be involved in.”

It takes a village

The first step, Zivkovich said, is spreading the word about what can and can’t be recycled and the importance of rinsing containers before tossing them into the recycling bin.

“There definitely needs to be a campus-wide education campaign,” she said. “We need to teach others how to recycle properly with information sessions, posters, and clear signage on the collection containers.”

“We want students to get involved with every aspect of the recycling process,” Dubin said.

Other priorities include finding more funding and securing workspace. “We need a new grinder and that’s $45,000,” Zivkovich said. “We’re applying for grants to find that funding. As for lab space, we think the Merwin building in Knowledge Park would be ideal.”

Another important part of the equation: volunteers from all four schools.

“We don’t want this to be a project only for PLET or engineering students,” Williams said. “This is an opportunity for students across the college to get involved with these recycling efforts.”

Zivkovich plans to reach out to the college’s sustainability program and Greener Behrend club for help securing volunteers to sort and collect plastics.

“Whatever major you are in, you’ll deal with recycling somewhere—at home, at work, in your community,” Zivkovich said. “This effects all of us whether you work in the industry or not.”

Artistic barrels allow Behrend to save for a non-rainy day

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

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Penn State Behrend is known for its park-like campus with lush lawns, natural wooded areas, raingardens, landscaped pathways, and colorful flowerbeds.

While Mother Nature does a pretty good job of watering at Behrend, there are times the college’s groundskeeping crew has to step in and give parched plants a drink.

But just as a mother’s milk is best for babies, Mother Nature’s “milk” is best for plants. They thrive on natural rain water, which contains no chlorine, ammonia, fluoride, or other chemicals found in municipal water systems.

Now, thanks to a public art project—Don’t Give Up the Drip—conceived and orchestrated by Erie-area environmental agencies, Behrend is able to collect and save rain water for plants in three new fifty-five gallon rain barrels on campus—one at the Health and Wellness building, one at Turnbull Hall, and one at Erie Hall.

These aren’t just plain plastic rain barrels though; they are works of art.

“Our goal was to showcase our local art talent while educating the community about the benefits of harvesting rainwater and water conservation and health,” said Kristen Currier, environmental educator at the Erie County Conservation District, one of the organizations behind the art project.

A total of fifty-two plastic barrels were transformed by forty-six different artists. The barrels then were placed in publically accessible locations throughout the Erie area, including three at Penn State Behrend.

The rainwater will be used to quench the thirst of Behrend’s vast flora.

“Erie receives above average rainfall annually. Still, throughout the summer we experience shortages and the rain barrels are extremely useful then,” said Ann Quinn, director of Greener Behrend, an environmental service club on campus. “The water stored will be used to water nearby plants on our campus in a sustainable, simple way.”

Resulting, of course, in a greener Behrend.

4 reasons to collect rainwater:

  • It is better for your plants — it’s fluoride and chlorine free.
  • It will lower your water usage (and water bills).
  • It cuts down on flooding and erosion of the land around buildings.
  • It reduces runoff — the water that washes pollutants into our streams and lakes during rainstorms.

Behrend’s Barrels

Health & Wellness

“The Green Man” by artist Luke Gehring

Location: Health and Wellness Center

 

Turnbull

“Save our water” by artist Lewis Prest

Location: Turnbull Hall

 

Erie Hall

“The Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly” by artist Downia Glass

Location: Erie Hall

Want to see all the barrels?

For a map to the location of all the rain barrels in the Erie area, click here.

 

 

Behrend’s rain gardens enjoy successful summer growth period

Jonathan and Bridget Thompson

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

You’ve probably heard of rain gardens, but do you know what they are?

At Penn State Behrend, they are a significant part of the college’s best management practices for storm water efforts.

The college’s two rain gardens — one between Fasenmyer and Hammermill buildings, and one to the east of Nick, near College Drive — sit lower than the surrounding lawn and act as basins to catch and slowly absorb rain water, helping reduce potential flooding during storms and filtering pollutants from storm water runoff that would otherwise enter Four Mile Creek and, eventually, Lake Erie. Storm water runoff is considered one of the nation’s main sources of water pollution.

The rain gardens were planted in 2012 with a $36,495 Growing Greener grant from the Department of Environmental Protection awarded to Ann Quinn, lecturer in biology.

According to Quinn, the gardens have been cut back for the fall, but they grew well this past season. She attributed the successful growth in part to the compost, which is mixture of food waste from Dobbins Dining Hall and leaf matter from the wooded areas on campus, added to the gardens.

The gardens do more than just help with storm water runoff. They are also butterfly way stations and certified pollinator gardens. When choosing what to plant in the garden, Quinn said students researched native plants that fit the three zones — wet, moist, and dry — of a rain garden and also filled the criteria for pollinator and butterfly certifications.

Plants in the college’s rain gardens that are tolerant of standing water include cardinal flower, New England aster, several varieties of Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, and cinnamon fern.

Some plants in the garden thrive in areas that hold several inches of water during and immediately after a rain event, but is otherwise dry. Plants in these areas need to be draught tolerant, but also handle water well, too. Plants in the garden that fall into this category include black-eyed Susan, false sunflower, kobold, and summer sweet.

Quinn said that every plant in the garden grew beyond expectations.

“The Joe Pye weed spread well, and there are plans to transplant some of it to other wetland areas on campus,” she said. “The milkweed was a beautiful addition and a very important plant to include for Monarch butterflies, who migrate to the Erie area annually.”

If you missed the gardens this summer, don’t worry, they’ll be abloom again in the spring. And the bees and butterflies will be there to greet you!

Until then, here are some photos to enjoy:

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Behrend campus recycles 7,219 pounds of electronics

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By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

What does 7,219 pounds look like?

Imagine two hippopotamuses, fourteen gorillas, or two cars, and you’ll have an accurate picture of the amount of electronics collected May 8 at the first Electronic Recycling Event at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

The event, co-sponsored by the Greener Behrend Task Force and Lion Surplus, allowed Penn State Behrend faculty members, staff, and students an opportunity to dispose of used electronics in an environmentally friendly way. Television sets, monitors, hard drives, printers, and DVD players were among some of the most collected items.

The 7,219 pounds filled ten pallets. From Erie, the items will be taken to the Lion Surplus facility at University Park to be sorted and sent out to various recycling vendors.

“With a television, the plastic, glass, and parts inside will be separated and go to different vendors,” said Annette Bottorf, a computer technician for Lion Surplus. “We are totally green. Nothing will go to the landfill, and when we contract a company, they have to guarantee us the same thing. Everything will be recycled and reused.”

Ann Quinn, faculty adviser for the Greener Behrend Task Force, said she was impressed with the turnout for the event, and she would like to see it return in the future.

“We really exceeded our expectations, and we filled a need,” Quinn said. “It also did not cost us a thing, which is wonderful.”

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International Coastal Cleanup soggy, but successful

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

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Steady rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of nearly 100 Penn State Behrend students, faculty members, staff, and friends who participated in Saturday’s Pennsylvania-Lake Erie International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event in which volunteers collect garbage from more than a dozen waterways and sites in Erie County.

Penn State Behrend typically focuses on the Four Mile Creek, which flows through Wintergreen Gorge, cleaning it (and it’s tributaries) from the headwaters in Greene Township to the mouth where it empties into the lake in Lawrence Park.

But a steady all-night rain and rushing storm waters made Four Mile too dangerous to clean on Saturday morning.

“The only spot we could safely clean up off campus was an area at the mouth of Four Mile creek ,” said Ann Quinn, lecturer in biology and coordinator of Behrend’s International Coastal Cleanup

There, a school bus full of students, faculty and staff collected 372 pounds of trash, including a tire and an anchor.

My daughter, 10, and I were among the group cleaning up at the mouth of Four Mile. As we left the site, lugging out our bags and bags of trash and recycleables, a slight movement in the sand caught my eye.

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A baby snapping turtle.

I couldn’t believe that none of us had trampled the little thing in our cleanup efforts.  My daughter and I marveled at the tiny creature for a few moments. She, of course, wanted to take him home. I, of course, said no.

“He is home,” I said as I put him down on the beach where he blended perfectly into the sand and rocks on the shore of the lake.

“Well, then, I’m glad we made it a little cleaner for him,” she said.

“Yeah, me, too,” I said.

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Back at Penn State Behrend, another group of volunteers conducted a clean up around the Wintergreen Gorge where they collected 150 pounds of trash, 75 each of recyclables and trash. And more than 1,000 cigarette butts!

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