Madison – “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

The truth in this adage is evident in the sheer volume of “recycled” merchandise Americans purchase at thrift sales, secondhand stores and flea markets.

Now, engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of New Hampshire have launched the Recycled Materials Resource Center (RMRC), an effort that encourages a similar waste-to-resources approach in the construction industry. “It’s really to look at how we can build our infrastructure in a way that doesn’t rely so much on virgin materials, and to reuse things that traditionally have been considered waste and managed as waste,” says Craig Benson, a UW-Madison professor of civil and environmental engineering and center co-director.

Manufacturers generally landfill materials such as used foundry sand, coal-combustion byproducts, asphalt shingles and textile scraps from auto interiors. But with minimal processing, these materials could find new life in everything from road-building applications to insulation. “You’re reducing greenhouse gas emissions because you’re not excavating new materials or buying new materials to build things – you’re using materials where you’ve already expended the carbon to get them,” says Benson. “And so, the amount of carbon that you need to translate them into a construction project is far less than what it would take to go out and get virgin materials and process them.”

Funded by a four-year, $6.2 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the RMRC will focus in particular on using recycled materials in transportation infrastructure applications. It capitalizes on complimentary research strengths at both universities – at UW-Madison, expertise in geotechnical engineering and transportation infrastructure and, at New Hampshire, in environmental aspects of recycled materials and life-cycle analysis methods.

Center faculty, staff and students will conduct both fundamental and applied research, pooling their skills in what Benson calls a full-service, one-stop-shopping approach to recycled materials. “We can do everything – from basic research to full-scale implementation and demonstration, and from training students to training people in practice,” he says. “We can do basic scholarly publications to develop standards and methods.”

The University of New Hampshire was home to a similar center until earlier this year. “We have strong ties to the 50 states that we serve, and that will be important as we move forward with the new center,” says Kevin Gardner, an associate professor of civil engineering and center co-director. “We hope to be able to effectively identify the major roadblocks to the more widespread, wise use of recyclable materials, and to be able to conduct research, training and outreach that will be effective in removing these roadblocks.”
– Renee Meiller, (608) 262-2481,
[email protected]

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