-Custodians of the Planet

—Photo by Tom Foley
With another Earth Day approaching, writer Carl Franzén took a tour of the campus to see what the U has accomplished to make this a cleaner world.

Who’s picking up my trash at the U?
Dana Donatucci is the inspiration behind the recycling program on the Twin Cities campus. His effort reminds me of a garbage hauler I once saw in Chicago, twirling two 30-gallon metal garbage cans on their bottom rims—one with his left hand, one with his right—on the way to his truck at the curb. He was efficient, confident, and creative.

Together with operations manager John Sundsmo, Donatucci’s group collects and sorts the recyclables from 14,000 containers in more than 200 buildings. It’s a system of recycling that was started more than a decade ago when recycling was neither convenient nor practical.

In the early 1990s the University invested $50,000 in large, concrete waste receptacles, but they were designed for garbage only. With the help of a few MPIRG activists, one of whom was studying architecture, a new lid was developed to offer three options. One slot was labeled for garbage, another for bottles and cans, and a third for newspaper. Reflecting back, Donatucci is still amazed at the results: between 90 and 95 percent of the material ended up in the right slots. Simply by offering equal choices, trash was sorted at the site by each individual.

To take the idea further, Donatucci placed four containers (one each for waste, cans and bottles, office paper, and newspaper) next to each other in five test buildings. Later, the contents were analyzed piece by piece. The results were overwhelmingly clear. "In the years before, when you had to go out of your way to recycle, the University got 30-40 percent recovery. When we went to the quad system," says Donatucci, "we got 85 percent recoveries of targeted materials."

To a great degree this high recovery rate was achieved because waste and recycling containers were put right next to each other at convenient locations in offices, and trash pickup by custodial staff at individual desks was suspended. People had to make decisions and be responsible for everything they discarded.
Because some people didn’t want to take care of their own trash, desk-side pickups were later resumed, and the recycling efficiency dropped from 85 percent to 60–70 percent where it essentially stands today.

Donatucci says the collection rate may be lower at times, too, because containers sometimes migrate from their designated locations; and if a container with a recycling symbol is used for trash, or a trash-only container has a recycling lid on the top, the system falters.

Cheaper to recycle
Every year about 5,500 tons of trash—more than two-thirds of the total trash from the Twin Cities campus—is taken from the University to the downtown Minneapolis incinerator. The cost to the University is $130–$140 a ton to pick up, haul, and burn, in addition to custodial costs.

Total handling costs for recycling are similar, but once recyclable trash makes it to the recycling center, the waste stream ends and a revenue stream begins.

Aluminum from cans and construction projects is marketed locally. Glass is separated by color—clear, brown, and green—green goes to Chicago to make new bottles, the other colors are used locally. Two hundred tons of computers and other electronics are salvaged for parts and precious metals, like gold. University cardboard is used to make new cereal boxes. Plastic has been delivered as far away as Atlanta; now it’s sent to Iowa. Paper is bailed and shipped directly to mills in Wisconsin and Canada in 22-ton truckloads. And always, revenue comes back.

Because recycled markets fluctuate wildly, it’s difficult to place an exact value on recycled materials. Generally the University expects to recover $50–$60 of the $130-$140 it costs to completely process recycled waste.

Relax, it's just condensation. Heat condenses when it comes out of the stacks of the Southeast Power Plant and hits the frigid winter air. But in the summer, nothing from the stacks is visible to the naked eye.
Where the nasty things go
The relatively new Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF) on the East Bank is considered the best hazardous waste facility of any university in the country.

A lot of flammable and chlorinated solvents from laboratories are collected and brought here. A small percentage of them are redistilled and returned to researchers, but generally the solvents are shipped out and sold for their BTUs—as fuel. Silver from photographic fixer can be recovered on site. A large volume of acids, bases, and other corrosive materials is also collected. These materials are sent in drums to a wastewater treatment company where the fluids are neutralized and harmful materials filtered out. Small amounts of chemicals that come out of labs are first stored, and when enough have been collected, are sent to a special chemical waste incinerator.

Radioactive materials that need to decay several to many years before becoming environmentally safe are shipped to Utah or South Carolina where they are stored at a cost of about $100 a gallon. Materials with low radioactivity that will decay in weeks, not years, are stored in an on-site warehouse to avoid the exorbitant storage costs. These materials are stored for 10 half-lives (the amount of time estimated for the material to effectively lose radioactivity) to ensure they can be incinerated safely.

IWMF is also where fluorescent lamps are collected. Several years ago all the fluorescents on campus were replaced with more efficient lamps. This effort reduced the lighting load by a third. Now, another improvement is taking place. When an old lamp wears out it is replaced with one that uses 60 percent less mercury. Last year 95,000 lamps—with eight pounds of recoverable mercury—were recycled. Mercury can cause permanent nerve damage in humans.

The facility has many best practices in place—air sensors, alarms, instant showers with eye flushers, and air-circulation controls—to deal with any emergency. The area of the building handling waste uses 100 percent, once-through air circulation, which is costly and energy inefficient, but if there is an accidental spill, the area is automatically and immediately cleared of dangerous fumes. Carbon filters are used to keep unwanted particles from leaving the building.

What’s your wish?
Conservation practices started taking hold about 10 years ago when technology caught up with ideology. This is particularly evident in the printing industry where harmful air emissions used to be prevalent.

"We’ve seen an evolution," says Dianne Gregory, director of University Printing Services. "The benzines have been replaced with more ecologically beneficial cleaners. They work just as well, but they aren’t toxic."

Soy-based inks are used exclusively. With few exceptions jobs are sent directly from the computer to a brand new direct-to-plate printer, eliminating the need for film. In turn this eliminates the chemicals required to make plates and the need to reclaim silver used in film and fixatives.

When asked what she would like to improve next, Gregory simply says she wants the price of recycled paper to be more competitive with virgin papers. Currently, the copy centers rely heavily on virgin paper, which costs about $30,000 less per year than recycled paper only.

That gap is about to be closed.

What will convince you to buy recycled paper?
When the first skids of recycled paper were purchased by the University in 1989, "it was garbage," according to Lynn Hein in Purchasing. The paper was dusty; it fouled up printers and didn’t print sharp images. "Then we found a paper [with 30 percent post-consumer waste (pcw) content] by Hammermill that worked well," says Hein.

Currently, people who do the ordering for each University office choose recycled paper 60 percent of the time. That in spite of the fact that virgin paper has always cost less.

Something new may bump recycled paper use even higher.

The University and the state of Minne-sota combined their buying power to win a lower price for recycled paper. Beginning in early April, the 30 percent pcw paper will sell for $2.69 per ream compared to $2.79 for the most popular virgin paper. With the performance of the papers apparently equal, it will be interesting to see how much recycled paper usage grows over the next few months.

Second time around
Instead of being recycled or discarded, some items or materials are simply set aside to be reused by different departments.
The Reuse Program, managed by the Recycling Center, has a warehouse full of furniture and office supplies that are free for the taking. There’s a Web site where you can see folders of all sorts—manila, expanding, hanging—along with used furniture, lab equipment, and some electronics. Go to umn.edu/recycle/reuse.html.

When a laboratory is cleared out, after a professor retires for example, many usable chemicals are left on the shelf. IWMF will pass these chemicals on to other researchers.

Purchasing doesn’t have to buy any packaging materials because it saves packing "peanuts." They even collect them from various departments around campus. If they wind up with too many, the Recycling Center has markets where the extras can be sold.

Over 50,000 small-sized containers containing used chemicals are handled each year by the University's hazardous waste facility.
—Photo by Tom Foley
A small city to keep comfortable
Just over a year ago the University reopened the Southeast Power Plant, about one half mile upstream from the campus on the east bank of the Mississippi River. At the same time, the old sulfur-producing, coal-burning plant just west of the knoll area on the East Bank was shut down for good.

The rebuilt plant makes steam that heats 94 Minneapolis buildings and uses its pressure to cool 19 of those buildings. Before leaving the power plant, the steam is also used to generate electricity, enough to power the plant’s operations plus an amount equivalent to 20 percent of the University’s total electrical needs.

In operation since 1903, the Southeast Power Plant is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and although the building exterior has not yet been rehabilitated, the interior was essentially gutted and rebuilt.

Its old coal-burning boilers were replaced with new gas-oil boilers and a state-of-the-art Circulating Fluidized Bed boiler, a massive furnace six floors high.

Although air quality has improved significantly, the University’s energy-management people are careful not to brag, but they could. The plant is among the cleanest burning power plants in the country.

They matter-of-factly describe how the modernized plant can burn coal with near-zero sulfur and almost immeasurable amounts of mercury emitted to the outside air. And although coal (low-sulfur coal from western states) is burned less than a quarter of the time—with natural gas being the main fuel—virtually no difference can be measured in what comes out of the tall stacks on the plant.

The fire that burns coal (or wood chips) is so hot the fuel is nearly consumed. The particles that aren’t burned the first time are blown back to the fire or captured by the equivalent of a large vacuum cleaner.

Gaining on losses
Facilities Management is proud of a chart that shows almost a 25 percent drop in energy consumption per square foot over the past decade. This is a remarkable accomplishment that was helped along in several ways.

Steam from the Southeast Power Plant is connected to buildings through an 18-mile network of tunnels. For years, the steam pipes were poorly insulated, causing the temperature in the tunnels to rise to 115 degrees and more. It was unbearable for workers who had to take breaks every hour because it was so hot. After the pipes were reinsulated, the ambient temperature was lowered to a tolerable 80 degrees. Instead of losing approximately 10 percent of the steam’s heat on the way to campus buildings, now only 4 percent is lost.

Other energy leaks come from old buildings. Defective windows and doors are being replaced on a systematic basis. An effort is made to keep the temperature in entryways at 60 degrees, although it fluctuates as high as 80 degrees.

A key source of loss is simply heating a space while it isn’t being used, or fully used. The culprit is old technology—pneumatic controls that are susceptible to dust, moisture, and air leaks—that reduce reliability. These are gradually being replaced with digital controls to remotely turn heating and cooling devices on and off.

With digital controls, a fan that heats and cools a lecture hall can be turned off if the space isn’t used for three or four hours. Then, a half hour before the next class is scheduled, the fan automatically turns on.

It doesn’t take long to see results.

Installing digital controls in Coffey Hall on the campus in St. Paul saved $30,000 in the first year. The retrofit cost was $90,000, easily falling within the four-to-five-year payback guideline Facilities Management follows for conservation improvements.

Next Month: Sustainability
This article has focused on the past decades of conservation efforts, which have improved not only our environment, but also the University’s bottom line. Next month Kiosk will define and explore the nature of sustainability and what it means to you as an individual.

—Carl Franzén
franz026@umn.edu


For questions about heating or cooling issues, call 612-624-0347.

For questions about recycling, call Emily McLoughlin at 612-625-6481.


Power(less) lunches
Lights off: Facilities News recently reported that "if all the lights on the Twin Cities campus were shut off for only one additional hour per workday, the cost for electricity would be reduced by $250,000 per year." Turning off lights, computers, printers, and copiers at the end of the day would also have a major impact. (You may have noticed the lights burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the West Bank Office Building on the west side of 35W. But this will soon change. A technical study and user survey—to determine when lights can be turned off during unoccupied hours—will be completed by the end of March.)

Free motion sensors: If you need help turning your equipment off, or if you are out of your office space for extended periods of time, Facilities Management will give you a power strip equipped with a motion sensor. If you have an electric heater, you are a prime candidate for this device. Call 612-626-8119.

Newspaper plus: Currently the newspaper recycling container is being modified across campus to accept magazines and books, including phone books. Look for the new lid that reads Newspaper Plus. Look under the lid if you ever have a question about what goes in the container.

Rent a Prius: Fleet Services has two battery-assisted Toyota Prius rentals. They get good mileage and are great around town.

Ride the bus: With University bus passes available, riding the bus is cheaper than driving and parking, and, door to door, often faster.

Stop junk faxes: To stop unwanted faxes send a fax back with the message "do not fax." Printing Services did this to reduce faxes from 500 per week to only 100 per week.

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Last modified 3/27/02
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