Student Working To Forge Better Metal Recycling Practices

Growing up, Matthew Eckelman couldn't stand to see his parents toss a soda can in the garbage. "I was one of those kids who annoyed my parents to no end trying to get them to set up household recycling," he says. "Now, they're even more ardent about recycling than I am."

Growing up, Matthew Eckelman couldn’t stand to see his parents toss a soda can in the garbage. “I was one of those kids who annoyed my parents to no end trying to get them to set up household recycling,” he says. “Now, they’re even more ardent about recycling than I am.”

Eckelman, now an environmental engineering graduate student in Yale’s Department of Chemical Engineering, hopes he’ll be as successful in persuading government and industry to change their environmental policies as he was with changing his parents’ practices. At the start of the fourth year of his Ph.D., Eckelman got one step closer to realizing that goal when he was awarded a STAR fellowship by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The STAR (Science to Achieve Results) fellowships, which provide funding to help graduate students complete their degrees, are awarded annually to students across the country doing interesting research in the environmental sciences and engineering. Eckelman, who uses computer modeling to assess both the direct and indirect impact of metals on the environment, was one of 879 applicants this year who competed for just 32 coveted spots.

Months after applying and not hearing anything, the graduate student had all but given up hope. “I was totally convinced they had lost my application,” he says. But by mid-summer, he got the call that told him he would receive $37,000 annually for up to three years to help fund his research. It’s a boost that will allow him to delve deeper into his research than he otherwise would have been able to, he says, including conducting more field research - something with which Eckelman has already had some experience.

In 2007, Eckelman won a National Science Foundation fellowship that allowed him to spend the summer in Japan to work with scientists at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). “Japan’s waste management statistics are probably the best in the world, and its government and researchers are very invested in understanding the waste management system’s efficiencies and weaknesses,” he says.

He also wanted to gain experience with a new software program developed at AIST that allows the Japanese to track the flow of metals, from manufacturing through the waste management process, better than any other country in the world. And while the United States also collects the kind of data to make that tracking possible, Eckelman thinks the nation can - and should - be doing better.

“I think people underestimate how integral metals are to modern society, and the incredible amount of energy it takes to make a simple piece of steel, for example,” he says. “I see part of my job as informing people about how much goes into manufacturing everything we use.”

That’s why he decided to look at nine different metals commonly used in engineering - aluminum, copper, iron, lead, zinc, mercury, cadmium, chromium and nickel - and study the effects their manufacture, use and disposal have on the environment. By collecting data from industries across the country, he hopes to learn more about where we can recover recycled metal most efficiently, quantify the carbon emissions that result from recycling metals using various technologies, and understand how the use, loss and recovery of various metals differs among regions.

Collecting the data needed to answer these questions will be a tough challenge for Eckelman. While Japan regulates the collection and reporting of data about the life­-cycle of metals at the national level, meaning the information is readily accessible, the United States relies mostly on individual states and communities to report these facts and figures. That means Eckelman will spend a lot of time traveling across the country to landfills and places like car shredders and metal yards, collecting data about the impact of those nine metals on the environment, and creating a model that will, hopefully, help us recycle them more efficiently in the future.

Although the “green” concept has become ubiquitous in recent times, Eckelman’s interest in the environment goes as far back as he can remember. Growing up in a Boston suburb with plenty of parks nearby and spending vacations hiking around New Hampshire with his parents helped cement his love of nature early on. He also remembers an elementary school program in which an environmental educator came in to talk to his class about different issues and take them on field trips to the nearby swamp.

By the time the budding environmentalist reached college, he knew he was interested in the environmental sciences. After graduating from Amherst College with a physics degree (the college didn’t offer an environmental sciences program at the time), Eckelman took a job with the state of Massachusetts as an environmental engineering consultant for the manufacturing industry. There he worked to reform the industry’s environmental policies concerning the use of toxic substances.

“It was really cool work. I guess that’s the first thing that sparked my interest in this [particular] field,” he says.

Before returning to school for his Ph.D., Eckelman spent two years in the Peace Corps stationed in Nepal, where he found new motivation to get involved with issues around waste management.

“It’s just such an obvious issue there. Here, we throw stuff away, and it goes in a dumpster someplace and then when we’re not looking, someone drives by in a big truck and takes it away. There, most people burn most of their trash in their front yards, including new materials like plastics and tin foil,” he says. “I wished there was some way I could tell them that it was poisoning their air.”

It could be his broad experience that lets Eckelman understand the many different aspects of his research. “He’s a fine researcher,” says Thomas Graedel, Eckelman’s supervisor and a Yale professor of industrial ecology. “Matt is willing to understand the science and technology involved, but also to then apply that to policy.” In the past 10 years, Eckelman is only the second of Graedel’s students to win a STAR fellowship. “I was very proud that he got it,” he says, before joking, “and very happy I won’t have to support him for three years.”

In fact, Eckelman hopes to complete his Ph.D. by next December. After that, he says, he’d like to work for a private environmental consulting firm, helping companies to “go green.” But Eckelman realizes that in order for his dream of a cleaner world to become reality, change will have to come from all sectors.

“In an ideal world, it’d be nice to see the government use this information to inform its policies around waste management,” he says, adding that only a small fraction of waste in the U.S. gets recycled. “Hopefully this project will contribute useful data, when we finally realize we don’t have to toss all of this useful material.”

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin:, 203-432-8555