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Recovering and reusing materials from offensive waste streams for biological and industrial applications

   Doctoral College

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  Dr I Cooper, Dr D Sarker, Dr Maureen Berg  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The Coronavirus pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitary products being used across all spheres of society as municipal or clinical non-recycled wastes (MoCNWs). This has meant that the volume of offensive waste has increased manifold. The safe disposal of this MoCNW material is a pivotal part of public health measures announced by the UK government in April 2020

Effective segregation of waste streams is important for several reasons: firstly, so that effective treatment can be applied and with minimal environmental impact; and secondly, that treatment can be cost-effective to industry, and thereby decrease land filled or incineration products from MoCNWs. However, as people are wearing PPE daily and using single use absorbent products, and also with the home and workplace, PPE/clinical and sanitary wastes (MoCNW) becomes disposed of in general waste bags as well as collated offensive waste. Therefore, the amount of mixed waste being produced increases year-on-year, meaning that general waste of this type cannot be disposed of without treatment. At present, the majority of this waste is not re-used, meaning that a large amount of potentially valuable material is being discarded. This leads to a direct impact on the natural environment through run-off in to the aquatic environment plus direct soil exposure.

This project aims to find innovative uses for these materials. The supervisory team have previously demonstrated the effective treatment of these wastes to reduce microbial contamination, and the potential for the re-use of the waste materials. The work programme will combine manufacturing science, microbiology, study of soil ecosystems and balance and plant growth techniques. This project will address several key work packages.

1)      Analysis of the content of offensive waste content to determine their physico-chemical properties.

2)      Extract and heat process liquor and potential waste water from processing.

3)      Allocation of waste for re-use as new products in relation to key substances (e.g. cellulose, and super-absorbent polymers, SAPs).

4)      Biological trials: seed germination trials, soil microbe inhibition trials (hydrophilic polymer gel, cellulose compost).

Work Package 1 – the exact content of each waste sample will vary, as the input sources vary. Therefore, a range of laboratory tests will be required to determine the potential for water absorbance and chemical retention and release of key biological compounds.

Work Package 2 – a considerable amount of energy is used to treat offensive wastes. The extraction of heat and re-use of heat has the potential to reduce overall costs to industry, as well as reducing the carbon footprint associated with these activities. It should also be noted that the clean water returned to the environment cannot be at a temperature that would damage aquatic ecosystems through the expulsion of toxic leachate.

Work Package 3 – the extraction of SAPs will allow for the production of items such as water-absorbing materials (e.g. for spill clear up). Other compounds such as cellulose can be used to encapsulate nutrients to assist plant growth. The supervisory team has unpublished data that shows that in the presence of such compounds, seed germination can be enhanced. This project will build on these data in relation to key indicator plant species.

Work Package 4 – the interaction of the newly produced materials with indicator plant and soil bacteria is crucial in line with legislation states that no materials produced can impact the natural environment, less it affect the functioning of sewage systems, or natural soil or water populations (e.g. eutrophication). Selected plant seeds relevant to human consumption will be purchased and growth trials to determine any enhancements in the growth afforded by exposure to these compounds. 

Funding Notes

The studentship is for 3 years and consists of a full stipend, tuition fees and a travel bursary for participation by the students and supervisors in cohort building and training events related to the DTA Future Societies network programme.
Anticipated start date is 01 October 2021.