Tapping into University expertise to promote sustainability in industry
The Discovery Across Disciplines showcase will feature over 60 interdisciplinary research centers from the university in a consolidated poster-style session at Coffman Memorial Union in the Great Hall from 12-2pm on October 15. Take a closer look at one of the exhibitors, the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, and its important role in bridging research, industry, and public health.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new regulations for smog-causing ozone pollutants across the nation, strengthening air quality standards by lowering the ground-level ozone standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb. Fortunately, the measured pollutant levels in Minnesota are already below the new regulatory standard, with the highest statewide levels topping out at 65 ppb.
While Minnesota has taken a proactive stance on reducing air pollution, some businesses may wonder what resources are available that can help them keep abreast of environmental concerns. A small program with big impact in sustainability is the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP), and it is housed right here on campus under the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health.
Over 250 companies last year alone reached out to the expert staff at the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program. Steadily growing in scope and popularity, MnTAP provides free, in-depth feedback to companies looking to minimize their energy and water use as well as reduce waste and harmful emissions. In 2014 alone, process recommendations from MnTAP saved over 27 million gallons of water, 333,000 lbs of solid waste, and 6.0 million kWh of energy, which is enough to power over 700 Minnesota homes for one year.
Improving sustainability through support, not sanctions
The road to more sustainable practices was not always so simple for local industries. Thirty years ago, many of the resources for evaluating environmental impact were associated with government agencies— the same agencies that issued citations and fines for breaching state environmental codes. At its inception, MnTAP filled a critical niche in reducing industrial pollution across the state by providing a much more accessible way for businesses to evaluate their ecological footprint.
Not surprisingly, MnTAP has become a popular (and important) resource for Minnesota companies trying to improve their water, waste, and energy efficiency. The organization has multiple avenues for assisting industries; in addition to answering questions over the phone, MnTAP technical staff perform site visits, individualized research, intern placements, and many other industry-tailored services. The MnTAP internship program pairs exceptional undergraduates with local companies for a summer long research project bent on improving sustainable practices. Several science and engineering graduate students have been placed in fall and spring semester internships through the program as well. At the end of the term, interns come up with a number of recommendations and the company decides what they want to pursue.
Building networks for effective environmental initiatives
Beyond cross-linking student research to real-world applications, MnTAP facilitates much larger collaborations as well. “How we work with businesses may vary, but the reason we exist is to help companies reduce their environmental footprint,” says Communications Specialist Linda Maleitzke.
As a small organization looking to make a big impact, cooperation across industrial sectors, experts, local governments, and state agencies is central to MnTAP’s success. In 2014, MnTAP completed a two-year effort in conjunction with the USDA to reduce solid waste across Minnesota and especially in rural communities. MnTAP collaborated with county and local governments as well as chambers of commerce to coordinate outreach sessions. The collective effort allowed MnTAP to host free training sessions on waste reduction and conduct on-site assessments in 53 counties across the state. “No way could we do [this outreach] with just our staff” says Maleitzke. “Collaboration occurs on a daily basis here… our best projects are those with strong collaborative teams.”
New solutions for cleaner air
Since 2014, state agencies, the city of Minneapolis, and Environmental Initiative have been working together through a MnTAP-facilitated partnership to reduce harmful emissions and provide a breath of fresh air to citizens. This initiative is sponsored by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Clean Air Minnesota with the goal of decreasing Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions from industries that use paints or other potentially harmful solvents or sprays. While Minnesota is a leader in air quality, MnTAP targets pollutants as a significant source of worker exposure and hazardous waste generation – their outreach and resources related to VOC emissions have already introduced working solutions into local businesses with services ranging from automotive refinishing, to industrial painting, to custom manufacturing.
Creating a vision for university engagement with companies and community
While much of MnTAP’s efforts happen off campus, it’s vital for MnTAP to make its home at the University of Minnesota. “We’re quickly gaining interest within the School of Public Health because our business model is akin to what the U is working towards, which is focusing on outcomes for businesses across the state,” Maleitzke believes. “[The big question we ask is] how do we leverage an organization like MnTAP to highlight some of the work that is already being done at the U and how it can impact businesses statewide?”
In the end, Maleitzke says MnTAP is perfectly situated to garner maximum traction with new environmental initiatives. “It works really well to say: ‘I work at the University of Minnesota and we’re here to talk about …’ It ups our credibility instantly and lays the groundwork for an effective exchange.” As a nexus for connecting disciplines, industries, and technical applications through environmental awareness, MnTAP exemplifies how academic study can directly affect the sustainability and wellbeing of our local communities.