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Reuse Is the Focus of the Recycled Materials Resource Center

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
August 22, 2007

RMRC grad student Scott Greenwood installs probes to measure the impact of recycled concrete on the environment. Gregg Hall is in the background.

When it comes to recycling, most people don’t think about rocks. Bottles, cans, newspapers and cardboard, maybe, but not rocks. And yet, just like with every other natural resource, the planet only has a certain amount.

The Recycled Materials Resource Center (RMRC) at UNH is a place that’s trying to do something about these kinds of issues—at least on the roadway and transportation front. Here’s the RMRC’s mission: to overcome barriers to the appropriate use of recycled materials in the highway environment.

What that involves, says associate professor of civil engineering and RMRC director Kevin Gardner, is attempting to figure out what stops people from reusing existing materials instead of tapping virgin resources for new projects. This is done primarily through research and outreach. The focus is large industrial products as opposed to those used by consumers.

“Our work is really geared toward recognizing we have a finite amount of materials in the world and we can’t keep using them or they’re going to disappear,” Gardner says. “I think it’s significant that we save some aggregate, some copper, for our grandchildren.”

Take the rocks again. Gardner says there are many places in the country, like Houston, where they have run out of stones and have to have them brought in, which takes other natural resources, contributing to their depletion, creating a cycle.

Projects the RMRC is working on could change that cycle’s course. RMRC has collaborated on research utilizing old tires, coal ash, asphalt shingles, paper sludge, slag, foundry sand, glass, rocks and plastic. Research and outreach is ongoing in all 50 states.

In considering a project, the RMRC weighs two factors: materials and the environmental aspect.

“We have to make a better product, not just replace another,” Gardner says.

UNH was the first university in the country to create a center dedicated to the study of reusing waste in transportation. Launched in 1999 with federal highway dollars, the RMRC is now run in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Funded by a four-year, $6.2 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the RMRC capitalizes on the research strengths of both universities—at UNH, in environmental aspects of recycled materials and life-cycle analysis methods and at UW-Madison, in geotechnical engineering and transportation infrastructure.

“They provide us with great geographical representation,” Gardner says.

Research doesn’t stop at studying particular materials and how they can be reused; the center also looks at the cost of not recycling resources. One study focused on the Pittsburgh area’s need for aggregate (sand, gravel, crushed stone), where they get it, what the costs of getting it are not only in dollars but in the impact to the environment, if sources for recycling exist and what might be the benefits of recycling.

Another project uses coal ash to make concrete, providing an easy, cost-effective way to recycle the ash and make a stronger concrete. In Finland, ash and fibers from paper mills are being used successfully in road paving to guard against frost heaves.

“We haven’t even looked at that here in the states. It’s one of those projects we need to look at,” Gardner says, adding, “In general in this country, we’re in trouble. For example, the Boston MBTA is $17 billion in arrears for deferred maintenance. Chicago’s in the same situation. We’re great at building roads but we can’t afford to maintain them.”

A new project that has Gardner excited will explore how sustainable a community is, whether there are ways to measure that and what, if any, changes would be needed to make it sustainable.

Presently, the RMRC is conducting a survey of state departments of transportation to learn to what extent highway projects utilize recycled materials. So far, 28 out of 50 states have responded.

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