Matthew Eckelman GRD ’11, a graduate student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, has got metal waste management sorted. Eckelman is the one of the newest STAR fellowship recipients, an award that is given annually by the Environmental Protection Agency to graduate students in the field of environmental sciences and engineering. Eckelman, who has been interested in green issues for as long as he can recall, is working on constructing a map that will provide information about the direct and indirect impact of metals on the environment. Eckelman, who sat down with the News yesterday to explain the importance of efficient waste management, said he hopes his findings will result in policy change for metal recycling strategies at a state and national level.
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AAs a society, we rely so much on metal for various technologies — you probably have half the periodic table there in your laptop. It’s frightening how little we know about the status of these important resources and what happens to metal in products when they enter waste management. The general idea behind my research group is to construct these cycles — similar to the carbon and nitrogen cycle — both on a global level and a local level.
Q What is this metal recycling strategy we’ve been hearing about?
A It’s not really a strategy. Private enterprise will always do what’s best for them given their economic circumstances. What it is, is a spatial platform for storing information on metal flows in waste management. It is meant both as a broad picture of what’s happening to metal in our society and as a means to pinpoint the best, most efficient opportunities for recovering it.
Q How did you come up with the idea?
A It came out mostly from my time in Japan last summer. They have really great waste statistics there covering nearly every waste stream. It’s a good complement to the work that has already been done in my research group, and stores the information on a spatial basis, so that it is easy to look at. Waste management information is always the hardest to get in terms of constructing these cycles, which is why Japan is such a treasure trove.
Q How did your 2007 summer in Japan influence your outlook on the environment?
A They’re really serious about their formal waste management system. They have a very densely populated and mountainous country, so there’s literally no space for waste and as a result there’s a lot more pressure to deal with waste in a way that really minimizes the land impact. What’s interesting is they have a system that is the most high-tech in the world but it’s also very expensive. For instance, at one facility in Tokyo, they incinerate municipal waste, and then melt this ash into slag, while recovering some of the heavy metal contaminants. So the process has a good outcome, but it is extremely energy intensive.
QWhat exactly is your Ph.D. on, and why did you choose that topic?
A My Ph.D. is in the field industrial ecology and the relationship between the material use and environmental impact. It is made up of various case studies, looking at different environmental trade-offs in the products that we buy or the systems we have built. The current case study is on waste management. It’s a comparative study between the U.S. and Japan, two countries with some of the best statistics on waste management. One difficulty is that the U.S. is managed on a local level, and the statistics are collected by states, so it’s hard to get all the information at once. The goal is to take a look at the way all the different types of waste are treated, focusing on metals and the efficacy of different technologies used to recover them. And for the metal that remains, what happens to it? And what environmental effects might it have?