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Ohio State, Rumpke Promote Circular Economy Research, Teaching and Practices

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February 15, 2022

A new collaboration between the Sustainability Institute at The Ohio State University and Rumpke Waste & Recycling will support advances in circular economy research, teaching and practices at a time when population growth in central Ohio is expected to bring new challenges to managing waste.

The company will invest in the university’s zero-waste goal by funding expanded efforts to improve recycling and waste elimination on campus. Additional funds will support engineering research and teaching to unlock ways that artificial intelligence and new automation can improve the effectiveness of recovering recycled material from the waste stream. The collaboration is supported by a new gift of $1 million from the company.

Rumpke is also endowing an undergraduate scholarship to support Ohio State’s Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, which will empower students to earn their bachelor’s degree debt-free.

“The collaboration with Rumpke highlights the importance of circular economy as a pillar of a more sustainable and just society,” said Kate Bartter, executive director of the Sustainability Institute.

Worldwide, 3.5 million tons of solid waste are generated daily, according to the World Bank. In a circular economy, waste is converted to valuable resources through a shift toward a closed-loop system that recovers these materials and puts them back into the production cycle.

A 2021 study conducted by Ohio State’s Facilities Operations and Development found that up to 68% of the materials thrown away at the university could be recycled, composted or eliminated from the waste stream. A circular economy can also create new jobs in design, materials engineering, automation, behavioral sciences and other fields.

Rumpke is helping Ohio State do its part by supporting zero-waste strategies implemented on campus by facilities and operations staff. The collaboration will fund recycling initiatives such as waste characterization studies, waste infrastructure assessments and education campaigns; expansion of systems to maximize the usefulness of organic materials; and strategies to prevent waste generation, especially bulk materials, at the source.

Building a more circular economy also has positive implications for climate change. Using recycled material conserves raw materials and energy.

“Recycled aluminum has an energy savings of more than 90% compared to using virgin feedstock, contributing to a smaller carbon footprint for the manufacturer,” explains Alan Luo, a professor in the departments of Integrated Systems Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. Luo, who researches lightweight materials and advanced manufacturing, is the recipient of multiple grants from the REMADE Institute, a national manufacturing institute that seeks to improve U.S. manufacturing through circular economy innovations.

“Columbus will set a new standard for recycling,” said Andrew Rumpke, East Area president for the company.

Recently, he announced the construction of a new recycling center, known as a “materials recovery facility,” in Columbus to replace the one the company currently operates. The new facility will be sized to accommodate population growth projections in central Ohio and could become the fifth largest in the country, according to Rumpke.

Bartter notes that improvements in the region’s recycling infrastructure will help Ohio State move closer to its zero-waste goal of diverting 90% of its waste from landfills. Some loads of recycled materials generated by the university must be rejected and sent to the landfill because they are contaminated by the presence of non-recyclable items. A new facility with advanced sorting technologies means that a higher percentage of recycled materials can be recovered from current waste streams.

Translating new technologies into new products and processes is part of the mission of the College of Engineering’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME), one of the programs supported by Rumpke’s gift. CDME Director Nate Ames explained that “we use industry-funded projects to provide undergraduate students with hands-on experiences to get them ready to enter the workforce.” 

Rumpke’s funds will support the center’s Artificially Intelligent Manufacturing Systems lab, building on component picking, logistics stacking, automated path planning and other current projects.

The company will also provide Ohio State with access to its new materials recovery facility, including a planned research and development center that will test recycling and environmental solutions, as well as procure data that could be used for faculty research and student projects.

“This collaboration will help shape the experience of many students who will eventually contribute to the next generation of advanced manufacturing,” Ames added.

Although most of Rumpke’s gift will be used over the next five years, the scholarship endowment to support the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program will remain permanent. As part of the initial launch of fundraising for the program, the university is matching scholarship gifts of $100,000 or more dollar for dollar.

“Our family has had a long-standing commitment to support education,” Andrew Rumpke said. “We are proud to pay it forward to the communities near our facility with this new scholarship.”

“Building a regional circular economy is an ambitious challenge that requires numerous collaborators,” Bartter said. “The investments by Rumpke, both in the region’s infrastructure and at the university, have the potential to be transformative.”

Learn more about the Ohio State-Rumpke collaboration.