Laying the foundation

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How EREF has helped shape the waste and recycling landscape over the last 25 years with its mission to advance education and research.

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March 11, 2019

Photos by Gottschall Photography

It wasn’t long ago that the waste industry was stuck in the Dark Ages. Waste was picked up by haulers, deposited in landfills and forgotten about with little regard over its environmental or economic impacts.

To fill this information gap, a group of seven industry professionals got together at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on April 18, 1994 to establish the National Solid Waste Management Association Foundation with a mission to promote science, research and education in the waste sector.

Over the next several years, that organization would become the Research and Education Foundation, operating under the Environmental Industry Association (EIA). The group eventually splintered off from the EIA in 2000 to become the standalone Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As the foundation closes in on its 25th year of service, EREF President and CEO Bryan Staley talked with Waste Today about the foundation’s impact and its plans to continue evolving to serve the shifting needs of the waste management industry.

Under the microscope

Since its inception, EREF’s core mission has been to fund scientific research to advance waste management best practices. To date, the organization has funded research that touches every phase of the generation, collection and disposal lifecycle.

Staley notes that while the group originally started off emphasizing landfill research, it has branched out to identify areas of interest across the waste spectrum that warrant further exploration.

“The foundation’s mission has always been to fund scientific research to advance sustainable solid waste management practices. This began with the funding of the foundation’s first grant project, Landfill Emissions Life-Cycle Analysis, and has continued with the funding of over 100 research projects. As the foundation has grown, additional funding and educational opportunities arose.”

To ensure the organization is tackling the most important research initiatives, EREF sends out a general request for proposals (RFP) two times a year to industry stakeholders in addition to targeted, topic-specific RFPs.

Along with these RFPs, the foundation relies on its research council to narrow down the topics of focus the organization’s initiatives will be predicated on. Its research council consists of subcommittees of individuals grouped according to their area of expertise so that proposed research programs are being reviewed by experts closest to the topic who have the background to understand the relevancy and benefits of pursuing specific proposals.

According to Staley, the ongoing research conducted by EREF has resulted in a deeper understanding of the waste management industry over the last quarter century, and more work is being done to address the topics that are most pressing today.

“Research funded by EREF has filled significant knowledge gaps including, early on, a deeper understanding of methane emissions from landfills, specifically methane oxidation and direct measurement of fugitive emissions,” Staley says. “This research resulted in changes in regulatory guidance that was more in line with current scientific findings. Currently, research areas of focus include residential recycling, organics management and emerging contaminants. A key area of focus moving forward is to further refine how EREF funds projects to ensure they are well aligned with the strategic direction of the industry. This will no doubt involve greater and more focused funding on diversion strategies and non-landfill alternatives for waste management.”

Staley says that as EREF takes a closer look at recycling, the organization hopes to shine a light on the realities and myths involved in collection and diversion practices to bring about a more practical approach to waste management.

“[One of the biggest areas of need] in the industry is the question of recycling and how to address contamination and improve and develop domestic end markets,” Staley says. “Another big issue between the solid waste field, the general public and others outside the industry is that there are a lot of misperceptions about waste. Such misperceptions are not helped by what appears to be a significant amount of pseudoscience and propaganda that is being proffered by all manner of individuals and organizations, many of whom have good intentions but don’t present the full picture of what is going on. For example, a common misperception is that all things can and should be recycled or composted. Currently, this is simply not true and is indicative of wishful thinking and a disconnect between product manufacturers and waste management entities.”

Staley says that although there are a number of zero-waste proponents in the industry who support sweeping change to how waste is managed, EREF is focusing its attention on more practical disposal and diversion methods that are in line with current economic realities.

“In many cases, the conversation [on managing waste] lacks pointed discussion of economic viability. There are many solutions that exist and, in reality, the waste going to landfills could be reduced by approximately 90 percent. However, such solutions are not economically possible or realistic,” Staley says. “While many want to discuss diversion, the fact remains that the majority of waste goes to landfills. Thus, there are various landfill issues that deserve attention. Specific topics, like dealing with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and elevated landfill temperatures, will continue to be a focus of EREF along with post-closure care of landfills, which will become more critical over the next decade.”

In order to help cut down on contamination and increase smarter diversion practices, Staley says that the foundation is launching its Designed for Discard (D4D) program in 2020. D4D is a validation seal that would help manufacturers label their products with all possible discard end points to better educate consumers on how to properly dispose of a product.

“When companies submit their products for D4D validation, we will evaluate them using a discards-based lifecycle assessment that takes into consideration all end points—recycling, composting and conversion to energy,” Staley says. “We’ll look at the typical disposal method, consumer behavior and available infrastructure, and then assign the product a seal based on the end point with the least environmental burden.”

Staley says that the seal will originally be used for plastic, paper and metal products. 

Photos by Gottschall Photography

A body of knowledge

Beyond its research, EREF has worked to promote educational offerings through its online courses, live webinars and in-person summits. This content is geared toward waste industry professionals, academics, students, policymakers and government entities.

“In 2011, EREF established its education program, holding our first regional summit,” Staley says. “True to its name, the education program aims to share cutting-edge research on key topics. In 2014, our internal branch of research, the Data & Policy Program, was launched. This program aggregates and analyzes data related to solid waste and analyzes policy, as well”

"[One of the biggest areas of need] in the industry is the question of recycling and how to address contamination and improve and develop domestic end markets.” -Bryan Staley, EREF president and CEO

This past year, the foundation released its Municipal Solid Waste eTextbook. This eTextbook was compiled from the foundation’s courses and webinars and packaged into an easily digestible and interactive format.

According to Staley, the eTextbook is a precursor to more content-specific offerings the foundation plans to roll out in the coming years.

“In the future, we plan to consolidate our educational content into a more cohesive format based on specific topics, which will form a backbone of content that can be used for training and continuing education purposes,” Staley says.

"EREF is currently one of the largest, if not the largest, sources of research funding and scholarships in North America as it relates to solid waste.” -Bryan Staley, EREF president and CEO

Beyond its own educational platforms, Staley says that the foundation has worked to advance its scholarship program, which has funded over 80 graduate students to date—one of whom was Staley himself. Scholarships are awarded to those pursuing master’s and doctoral waste management research and education.

“Our scholarship program seeks to instill an excitement for solid waste in our scholars and encourage them to take positions in the waste industry upon graduation,” Staley says. “The industry needs more young people to bring in fresh ideas and passion to improve the industry. We’ve found that 65 percent of our master’s scholars accept positions in the waste industry, while 61 percent of doctorate scholars go into academia. Those who choose academia don’t fall off of the map, though. Many still give back by encouraging their students to apply for an EREF scholarship or bringing them on as research assistants to help with EREF-funded research. Additionally, the scholarship recipients who have stayed in academia are becoming the next generation of solid waste researchers, which is enormously beneficial to the waste industry since they understand the field far more than other researchers who have different backgrounds.”

Celebrating 25 years

EREF’s presence has grown substantially since its founding members first came together. Today, the foundation is one of the leading non-advocacy groups supporting the waste and recycling sector.

“The foundation’s substantial body of knowledge that it possesses from the research grants, funded scholarships and data efforts make EREF a key repository of technical information,” Staley says. “EREF is currently one of the largest, if not the largest, sources of research funding and scholarships in North America as it relates to solid waste. Because of EREF’s status as a non-advocating charity, EREF is an organization that serves all in the industry and has stakeholders from the private sector, municipalities and regulatory agencies, which is a rare feat in an industry that has historically been bifurcated. This makes EREF an organization that continues to build a reputation as an objective, credible organization that serves all.”

According to Staley, as EREF has grown in scope and presence over the years, its commitment to the profession has followed suit.

“When I started at the foundation, I would commonly ask who had heard of EREF at a conference I was speaking at, and only a few hands would go up,” Staley says. “Today, when I ask the same question, there are only few hands that are not raised. This transition of awareness has been the result of not only tremendous effort by staff and our board, but also by ensuring what EREF does provides a greater value to the waste field beyond philanthropy. Despite all this, I feel EREF’s greatest accomplishments have yet to be realized.

“If anything, EREF is more relevant today than when it began—all thanks to the generous supporters who have believed in and shared our mission and allowed us to grow and increase funding to our programs,” Staley continues. “Our mission remains the same as when we were founded: to advance sustainable solid waste management practices. We are so thankful to those who laid the foundation and brought this organization to life, and we’re proud to further our pursuit of a more sustainable future in the next 25 years.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.