Un-fantastic Plastics: An End-of-Life Analysis of the University of Virginia Solid Waste Management System; A Sociotechnical Analysis of German and American Waste Management Systems

Hepp, Shannon, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Colosi Peterson, Lisa, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Ivey-Burden, Lindsay, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Waste disposal is a global issue. No matter how or where people live, humans will always generate waste. Single-use plastics (SUPs) are an especially problematic type of waste due to their abundance, inability to break down, and tendency to bioaccumulate. With billions of tons of waste produced year after year, the following question becomes ever more pressing: what to do with it all? Despite its popularity in large countries like the United States, landfilling is an unsustainable solution to this problem since space is a limiting factor. Alternatively, incineration of garbage releases toxic gases into the atmosphere that wreak havoc on human, animal, and environmental health. Furthermore, there are limited natural resources available for human extraction, manufacturing, and use in the world. Landfilling and incineration of materials eliminate them from the economy, limiting future technology production. Instead, the answer lies in diversion and reuse of waste materials. The technical report and sociotechnical research paper within this portfolio seek to analyze common waste disposal methods and the systems enacted to regulate them. Through an understanding of current waste management systems, diversion and reuse policies can be proposed which socially and economically benefit both nations and waste management providers, while simultaneously benefitting the health of people and the environment. The technical report serves as a small-scale case study on the University of Virginia (UVA) waste management system, while the sociotechnical paper provides an analysis of the technological, social, and political factors affecting the municipal solid waste (MSW) management systems of the United States and Germany.

The technical project was completed in two phases with the goal of analyzing the University of Virginia solid waste management (SWM) system and identifying beneficial alternatives. Over the Summer of 2021, Governor Ralph Northam signed Virginia Executive Order 77, banning the purchase and use of SUPs by government agencies. It was expected that the UVA landfilling and plastic recycling streams would decrease, and the composting stream would increase due to this order. UVA Facilities Management recognized that the university would need to adjust its SWM system to manage this new waste stream distribution. To do so would require pre- and post-ban models of the university waste system. For this reason, the first phase of the project involved analyzing the 2018, or status quo, UVA SWM system and modeling it. The second phase focused on analyzing the post-ban, 2021 waste data and incorporating it and potential future scenarios into the status-quo model. A Microsoft Excel model was created outlining the university landfill, food waste, yard waste, and recycling waste streams. Cost, global warming potential (GWP), and net energy usage is provided for each stream. The model provides the 2018 and 2021 waste conditions as well as a user-editable section for hypothetical scenarios, allowing for easy comparison of the most cost-effective and environmentally-friendly system options. The UVA Office for Sustainability and Facilities Management plan to use this tool in future SWM decisions.

The sociotechnical analysis focuses on comparing how different countries approach solid waste management and identifies key factors responsible for environmentally-friendly successes in the systems. As Germany is the European Union leader of national recycling rates, it was chosen to serve as the comparison country for the United States. The comparison of these MSW systems is accomplished using Actor Network Theory as a sociotechnical framework. Human and non-human actors are identified in each country’s MSW management system and their relationships are defined, creating two independent networks which can be directly compared. The actors key to the German network’s success and lacking in the American network are the Waste Management Act of 2015, German Packaging Act, and Green Dot program. These three actors work synergistically in the German MSW network. The Waste Management Act requires that all citizens sort their waste into separate streams at disposal. The German Packaging Act requires that all product packaging waste in the country have a disposal plan prior to purchase by a customer. And companies pay PRO Europe for Green Dot licensing so that their products will be picked up and disposed of after consumer usage, satisfying the German Packaging Act. Because individual citizens are required to sort their waste, and disposal has already been paid for, only unrecoverable materials are sent to landfills or incinerated. Additionally, because citizens are heavily fined if they do not comply with waste sorting, the waste streams have a high purity percentage and therefore require minimal sorting costs in recycling and reuse facilities. These lower costs result in higher profits and the overall success and prevalence of recycling businesses in Germany which is not seen in the US. There is public support in the US for an economy like that of Germany, but large structural changes would need to be made and waste sorting legislation adopted for similar reuse and recovery rates to be seen in the US as in Germany.

Both the technical and sociotechnical analyses explore solid waste management systems, but on different scales. The sociotechnical analysis takes a top-down approach focusing on national legislation and the complicated network of actors and their relationships within more abstract, disposal networks, while the technical report provides a localized network which can be more easily influenced. The analysis of the UVA SWM system serves as a more detailed extension of the sociotechnical analysis of the US MSW management system. As seen in both papers, the primary driving force in SWM networks is legislation, secondary is economic, and tertiary is environmental. Through localized social changes in networks, such as university SWM systems, momentum can be generated for national legislation, indirectly prompting economic and environmental benefits once in effect.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Waste management, Municipal solid waste management, Waste, Solid waste, American waste management, German waste management, Actor network theory, Single-use plastics, Virginia Executive Order 77, Univeristy of Virginia, UVA, Landfill waste, Composting, Recycling, Food waste, Yard waste, Global warming potential, Facilities Management, Office for Sustainability, Green Dot, German Packaging Act

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

Technical Advisor: Lisa Colosi Peterson, Lindsay Ivey-Burden

STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook

Technical Team Members: Madeleine Alwine, Madison Crouch, Taylor Donches, Geneva Lanzetta

Issued Date: