Jennifer Russell, assistant professor of sustainable biomaterials at Virginia Tech, uses a unique approach to biological systems analysis. By looking at a facility as an organism, she compares the material inflows with the material outflows (trash) to determine the health of the facility. In Russell’s examination of the outflows of a Retirement Unlimited, Inc. (RUI) senior living residence, she found not only food waste, but also a lively dialogue about sustainability with its residents and an extended commitment. Russell hopes to build on this foundation of research by obtaining sponsored research grants in order to have broader impacts and improve sustainability at assisted living facilities.
My name is Jennifer Russell. I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of the Sustainable bio-materials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. We were really fortunate to work with RUI as our host community. Last year we did three different sites in Virginia and they invited us back to do it again, three different facilities here. So we will be working on site here at Paul Spring in Alexandria. We will be going to the Wellington, which is in Gainesville later this week. And then we're also going to be in Roanoke at Woodland Hills facility, and that's actually a facility we covered last year. So we'll actually have year-over-year data for that particular facility to help them see if the things they've been doing to try and improve sustainability activities have been working. You can identify the bag has seal of like preserving... My teaching really focuses on sustainability within human communities and within, you know, how humans are working with the planet and within the systems that we built and the infrastructure we have. And a lot of that also relates to circular economy. So the idea of how we're using resources, transforming them and ideally trying to get them back into our systems and our economies. So with the students that were doing work here today, this is really, apart of the focus is working with communities and facilities to figure out what materials they're bringing into their facilities, what wastes are leading it as a results. And then how can we help to get recyclables into recycling systems, organics into composting systems, and other suggestions that we might make on how they can reduce their overall waste generation as part of their operations. We are sorting through what looks to be kitchen waste to separate out the materials that are recyclable, the organics, and just straight old garbage stuff that we'd be putting in a landfill. So me as an inductor design student, I can have a different type of angle instead of a sustainability background. So it's like when I see the flows and like movement of materials and energy through a facility, it's like it, kind of makes me think of like a product's system. And so it's like me as a product designer, you think about it as like, oh, okay. Before I design a kitchen appliance, let me look at the kitchen process. We are weighing the materials by category so that we can actually get an idea of what percent of the waste stream is actually, which materials helps identify different opportunities for recycling or composting or diversion. For example, if we find out that 20% of the waste stream is number one plastic, that's all perfectly recyclable. But if there's no recycling program in place, It's all going to end up in landfill anyways. So it just helps to identify different ways in which way streams can be improved and made more green. So this kind of research is important for Virginia Tech because this type of sustainability work is new and going to be very important for the future. It's more so than just planting trees or working. Maybe I'll make a massive industrial scale. Research like this and sustainable changes start a lot of times, these smaller corporations, you know, digging through the trash, what can we stop throwing out? What could we stop using? So for Virginia Tech, this is definitely work that you start small and it gets much bigger. So with these particular group of students, I'm hoping that they get, they'll appreciate the hard work that they're doing, but also the incredible value that that's generating for this community. And that that will hopefully inspire them to stay connected to this, regardless of whatever pathway they choose going forward.