CEDAR FALLS — The Iowa Waste Reduction Center is headquartered at the University of Northern Iowa, but its reach extends far beyond Cedar Falls. The UNI organization has set several benchmarks on reducing waste, including a standardized painting technique utilized by the U.S. military and an Iowa Green Brewery certification.
The IWRC, which sits under the umbrella of the University of Northern Iowa College of Business, and Business and Community Services, was launched 30 years ago after the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act was passed.
“In certain circles, we’re known more internationally and nationally than we even are locally,” said Joe Bolick, communications and public relations manager for UNI Business and Community Services.
A research project completed about 20 years ago led the IWRC to compare two similar local body shops on the amount of wasted hazardous paint. It turned out one was producing twice as much waste as the other due to inefficient painting. The curriculum developed by the IWRC eventually evolved into a military certification program. Every person who paints a U.S. military vehicle is certified by the Spray Technique Analysis and Research for Defense, or STAR4D.
“We have people from military bases and contractors from all over the country and world, for that matter, come to Cedar Falls to go through training classes,” Bolick said. “You wouldn’t expect a school like UNI to have a 16,000-square-foot research facility that can do cutting-edge coatings, application and pre-treatment research and testing.”
The IWRC has trained military painters from 49 states, Japan and the Virgin Islands.
“It’s tough to estimate the dollar amounts of what the small investment in our program has probably saved,” Bolick said.
An Army Depot reported more than 17 percent in savings in topcoat application, and an Army National Guard Base reported a 150 percent increase in production output using the IWRC techniques.
As part of the painter training, the IWRC developed a virtual painting center -- that is sold worldwide -- to train painters without actually using paint.
Painting trainers from the IWRC also work across the state and locally with private industry and businesses for painting and coating operations.
The IWRC also is on a mission to tackle the issue of food waste.
About every five years, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources conducts a waste characterization study to determine what is dumped in Iowa landfills. In 2011, the food waste was at 13 percent, according to Bolick.
“In the 2017 study, food waste is up to 20 percent of Iowa’s landfills now,” he said, and seven percent is packaged food waste. “And then you have the stats of how many are hungry in this state and how many children are food insecure and it just doesn’t make sense.”
To combat the issue, the organization has developed educational materials dispersed at rural schools as well as a first of its kind in the Midwest — a Food Recovery Summit held in Des Moines. Last year was the first conference and included attendees from 18 U.S. states and Canada. The event is two and a half days of collaboratively determining what can be done to divert food waste from the landfill. The event also included high schools competing in a cooking challenge using food left over from the conference and another event held that weekend.
“There’s a million reasons why we don’t want food waste going in the landfills, and it is, and at an alarming rate,” Bolick said.
As breweries began popping up across Iowa in the last decade, the IWRC partnered with about 15 breweries in the Iowa Brewer’s Guild to develop the Iowa Green Brewery certification.
So far, seven breweries in Iowa have been certified, including SingleSpeed Brewing Co. in Waterloo, which recently expanded into the historic Wonder Bread building in downtown Waterloo.
“(Brewing) is a very resource intensive process, and it’s a process that we’re not necessarily unfamiliar with because it’s very similar to an ethanol plant,” Bolick said, noting the IWRC has worked with regulatory processes in ethanol plants in the past.
“That’s a place that churns out a lot of food and a lot of potential waste. You’d be shocked how little actually goes into the garbage,” Bolick said.
All food waste is composted, all spent grains are sent off to a mushroom grower or farmers for cow feed, and anything that can be recycled is sorted. “There’s actually little garbage that goes out of that place,” he said.
Other states with similar organizations or state agencies have contacted the IWRC to use what they’ve developed for something in their own states to benchmark how they’re doing sustainability-wise.
“People are wasteful, and we’ve got to figure out how to minimize that, and I think we do a pretty good job at that,” Bolick said.