Eliminating waste by design

Oct 17, 2008

The skies in China's largest city appeared hazy during the Olympics despite their best efforts, which underscored the need to teach engineering students about how to go green. Since 2005, Kettering University's Industrial Ecology Team has taught students to consider product life cycles, thanks to a National Science Foundation grant.

Olympic athletes are not stupid. Obsessed with their craft, perhaps. Addicted to training, of course. But oblivious to the environment in which they are to perform, no.

Given the lack of scientific evidence regarding pollution and its impact on athletes, one sniff of the Beijing air suggested to many of these well-trained contenders all they needed to know about the environment: dangerous. Heck, in January of this year—more than seven months before the games—researchers from the Human Performance Laboratory at Marywood University in Scranton, Penn., studied the impact of athletic performance in low and high pollution scenarios, which prompted one of the study’s key authors, Kenneth Rundell, to conclude, “It might be best to show up the minute you’re going to start running.”

And what about paper and industrial waste in such a vast, over-populated country? Although specific data is currently unavailable, the years preceding these games saw Beijing work incredibly hard to create additional recycling plants to manage paper and industrial waste. For example, in 2006, the city composted 270,000 tons of waste and recycled more than 1.43 million tons in new facilities. These figures represent a 30.6 percent increase in resource re-utilization, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP, “Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: An Environmental Review,” http://unep.org)

Unfortunately, Beijing skies still appear bleary and product waste continues to accumulate, which causes many Olympic viewers to ask a rhetorical question: is it possible to completely eliminate waste?  

The short answer is no. Elimination requires a complete end to the use of current products, which is difficult, if not impossible, for industrialized nations to achieve. But for Kettering University faculty and students involved in the Kettering Industrial Ecology Team (KIET), there is a chance to limit the future impact of common products in the waste stream through careful upfront design practices. 

KIET is a multidisciplinary group of researchers and industry professionals who study environmental issues in product design and manufacturing. Dr. Terri Lynch-Caris, an associate professor of Industrial Engineering, serves as the principal investigator for the group. In 2005, KIET won a three-year, $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSAF, grant no. 0511322) to establish an organization and course that educates students about environmental awareness during the product development process. 

The course—IME-540: Environmentally Conscious Design and Manufacturing—emulates Ford Motor Company’s Partnership for Advanced Studies (PAS) Program titled “Closing the Environmental Loop”—assists students in learning how industry is changing in response to increased environmental problems. This effort has spurred an increasing amount of interest among students and faculty about how to better engineer products that consider the environment, and has generated movements to recycle on campus.

Caris explained that the unique lesson students learn in IME-540 is that products can undergo redesign to “reduce their overall impact on the environment.” In Beijing, this idea is best represented by the use of plastic-wood composite materials from recycled wood and plastic waste for such things as park benches, building facades and window shutters in the Olympic village. Most importantly, this composite material is a good substitute for wood and reduces timber usage, according to the UNEP.

To further stress the needs of green engineering in product development, faculty members of KIET have presented papers at many conferences on their work since 2005, the most recent of which took place June 22 at the American Society for Engineering Education in Pittsburgh. More than 15 scholars and educators attended the workshop and received a CD of course materials to help in developing similar programs at other institutions. This CD is part of KIET’s attempt to disseminate the group’s work to a larger audience. 

As part of the workshop, KIET member Dr. Craig Hoff, professor of Mechanical Engineering, used unique pedagogy to conduct a lifecycle analysis of a flashlight. His analysis focused on the raw materials used to make the flashlight, methods employed to extract the raw materials, the stages of manufacturing required to complete the flashlight assembly and the end of life disposition of the item. What they found is that the battery presents the most challenging environmental concern. 

According to Caris, students enjoyed this workshop based on the learning assessment and formative review conducted after it was over. Many attendees were also impressed by the workshop and CD course materials, and intend to use some of these materials in their classes at other universities.

For the past two summers, KIET also engaged in Kettering’s Lives Improve Through Engineering (LITE) program, which brings high school-aged girls to campus during the summer for a two-week college experience of classes, laboratory experiments and other activities. This year, KIET provided a condensed program of the six modules used in IME 540 and allowed students to choose a common product for redesign. The goal was to demonstrate that engineering design decisions play a role in a sustainable society.

In 2008, the group achieved a number of other successes. For example, the student-run Green Engineering Organization (GEO)—an organization developed out of this grant and overseen by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Aurandt—helps increase student participation and awareness in green issues. Recently, the group expanded its recycling program on campus by increasing the number of student and faculty volunteers, and by providing more recycling bins in classes. 

Currently, all faculty office suites and academic departments may choose to participate in this initiative. “The students work continuously on ways to help make campus and the surrounding area more environmentally friendly through activities and guest speakers,” Caris said, adding that GEO members tend to be the leaders from across campus.

GEO also won a 2008 grant from Coca-Cola and the National Recycling Coalition to institute a pop can bin recycling program. This experience also spurred Aurandt’s interest in green chemistry and she, along with Dr. Rabago-Smith of Kettering’s Chemistry Dept., received a grant from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ, http://www.michigan.gov/deq) to develop and teach Industrial Green Organic Chemistry this coming winter and spring 2009.

Kettering University Provost Michael Harris emphasized that the effort put forth by KIET and GEO is “a valuable lesson on how to mobilize a multidisciplinary approach, a theoretical foundation and the needs of industry to bring about an innovative approach that addresses environmental sustainability concerns and industrial productivity, effectiveness and efficiency.” 

As the final year of funding ends in September, KIET members plan on submitting another proposal to the NSF for funding that would cover 2009-2012. The group also expects to offer IME 540 online, which would increase the number of students who can take the course. In August, Caris, along with fellow KIET member Jennifer Aurandt, presented results of the three-year effort to the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Attendees commented that the Ketteringgroup was able to achieve significant results in a short amount of time and under a tight budget. Furthermore, the poster session titled “Developing a Course in Environmentally Conscious Design and Manufacturing (http://green.kettering.edu)” earned applause and prompted opportunities to collaborate with other universities.

But perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of this project to Caris is the opportunity to collaborate with faculty from many different disciplines on a project that ultimately could help scores of future engineers strongly consider the impact of their engineering work on the environment.

“This collaboration really shows that it takes a multi-discipline approach to convey the importance of environmentally conscious design. Environmental solutions do not exist within just one department; the solutions come from the collaboration of ideas between different disciplines,” she said.    

To learn more about KIET, contact Dr. Terri Lynch-Caris at (810) 762-9859, by email at tlynch@kettering.edu or visit http://green.kettering.edu/.

Written by Gary J. Erwin