Specialty Waste Streams

The specialty waste streams targeted in this section range from hazardous chemical and biomedical wastes to construction debris and farm wastes. Because of the inherent risk chemical, biological, and radiological waste pose, they are the most heavily regulated waste streams, have the highest hazard to personnel, and pose the greatest environmental liability. Some of these specialty waste streams are relatively small quantities but highly hazardous, while the large volume materials may also have contamination concerns such as asbestos (construction debris) or pesticides (farm wastes). The unique nature of each specialty waste stream and specific regulatory requirements do not allow for common solutions among this diverse group of materials. The chemical, biological (regulated medical waste), and radiological wastes are all directly tied to Penn State research activities and increase in both quantities and management complexity as the research portfolio of the University continues to grow. Recovery of other materials, such as Lion Surplus can represent a significant financial opportunity. Thus it is imperative that the University continue to carefully and responsibly manage these waste streams.

This subcommittee is focused on six specialty waste streams: hazardous building materials; construction debris; chemical, biological, and radioactive waste; “universal waste,” including batteries, oil, and fluorescent lights; waste from Lion Surplus; and farm organic waste. These are all unique subsets of the solid waste definition, and most have their own regulatory restrictions and restraints.

Recommended goals and principles to impact Penn State’s waste stream:

Short term

  • Minimize purchased quantities and maximize recycled/reused disposal amount without compromising regulatory compliance.

Long term

  • Ensure a sustainable best business practice is in place for the process to ensure future quantities of each unique waste stream are managed efficiently.

Goals for each specialty waste stream

  • Hazardous building materials: Write purchasing specification that explicitly bans purchasing of building materials that contain asbestos, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), or heavy metal with an exemption for research applications. These materials are known to create serious liabilities both during use and at end-of-life, and safer substitutes are available.
  • Construction debris: Establish bidding and selection criteria for contractors that awards points for building materials recycled from demolition work. Modify the Design & Construction Standards 31 30 00 Structural Backfill and Compaction and 33 00 00 Utilities such that used clean concrete and brick could be considered a backfill material. For abatement and demolition projects contractors are given specific scopes of work that detail how materials are to be disposed and/or recycled, but compliance has often been questionable and there has been limited enforcement. Review the Office of Physical Plant Design C&D waste management plan implementation and develop a process to enforce compliance with the plan and improve data collection on C&D recycling for all projects, especially those over $1,000,000.
  • Chemical, biological, and radioactive waste: Most of our systems for these wastes are well organized and compliance is good. However, the University’s incinerator for biological tissues and animal mortalities is aging and near end-of-life, so that downtime could become a serious liability. Over the last several decades the best available technology for this waste stream has shifted from combustion to chemical tissue digestion. Therefore, the primary goal in this area is to design, construct, and operationalize a chemical tissue digester to replace the University’s aging incinerator. This investment will address both regulated medical waste (bio-waste) and large animal carcass disposal concerns. Several specific equipment options are described on a following page.
  • Universal waste: Establish a new design standard that eliminates new installation of fluorescent lights and replaces existing ones as renovations are completed. This will have a positive impact on both energy and environment.
  • Lion Surplus: Create a purchasing disincentive or ban on office furnishings made from particle board, which are not durable, not recyclable, and create serious end-of-life challenges. Expand and simplify the surplus operation to encourage and enhance reuse on campus as well as broader off-campus sales.
  • Farm Organic Waste: Identify/quantify greenhouse, farm, and other agricultural wastes that are generated on or off campus, to determine which could be captured to augment current organic recycling practices:
    • Identify specific organic wastes that are significant enough in quantity to warrant separation from other farm waste streams and targeting for reuse, recycling, composting, or some other innovation.
    • Assure that recycling efforts for any newly separated wastes do not violate existing regulations for land application, water quality, pathogen control, and any other requirements.
    • On-farm animal waste streams are currently land applied for nutrient recycling, and management practices are compliant with Act 38, Pennsylvania’s Nutrient Management Act. Construction is currently underway to install an anaerobic digester, located at the Dairy Complex, which allows for further stabilization of soil nutrients, odor reduction, energy generation, and sand separation/recycling (sand is used as an inert animal bedding material). How can this system serve as a living lab and complement OMPEC as part of an integrated organics recycling program?

Progress toward these goals can be assessed by many of the measures previously discussed in the Metrics section of this report. Other avenues of determining success include compliance, benchmarking with “best in class” especially at other Big Ten universities, and unit volume/cost trends over time. However, construction debris and farm organic waste have slightly different measures or success, as follows.

Success for construction debris should be measured by the amount (tons/yd3, etc.) of material that has been assigned a second use through this program. Considering the costs in project delays, labor, trucking, and handling of construction debris, success for this initiative should not be measured purely by economics. The conventional methods of managing construction debris as either building demolition waste in a landfill or using as clean fill are currently very low cost and do not not face immediate regulatory pressure, but will likely become more expensive and inconvenient in the future. Because of the large tonnages involved, careful tracking and maximizing recovery options can significantly increase the University’s overall recycling rate.

Advances in farm organic waste management could also be measured in several different ways. Identifying a new farm organic waste, diverting it from the landfill stream, and reaping an economic benefit would count as a success. The nutrient management plan will need to be reevaluated after the digester comes online, with an assessment to help determine the resultant net economic impact, odor reduction during land application, the net economic benefit of energy generation from the digester, and the net economic benefit from sand separation and recycling.


As previously mentioned, each specialty waste stream is different and thus will need a different implementation plan. In many cases this should start with procurement and contracting. For example, Environmental Health and Safety should write the policy for the hazardous building materials waste stream with input from impacted business units, mainly the Office of Physical Plant. A process then needs to be established where the requirements are referenced in building and design standards and/or contracts.

Similarly, the Office of Physical Plant Design and Construction unit should develop a process for the construction debris waste stream and then develop an agreement and create alignment with Housing and Food Services, Athletics, and the Applied Research Laboratory, to ensure all are utilizing the same process. OPP Engineering Services along with Design and Construction will need to modify specifications to allow the use of used concrete and brick as a backfill material. These are activities that the new sustainable procurement staff member may be able to assist with.

The Animal Diagnostic Laboratory will need to develop a long-term business plan for managing large animal carcasses, as described below in the section on the chemical, biological, and radioactive waste stream. That plan should assess different options, develop a feasibility study, establish a timeframe, and estimate a rough order of magnitude budget. Hopefully with this information the optimum choice should become obvious.

The Office of Physical Plant Engineering Services should perform a cost benefit analysis looking at full life-cycle costs along with environmental liabilities for the universal waste stream. If proven to be a positive return on investment, Engineering Services would then write the design and construction standard to cover lighting purchases.

For the Lion Surplus waste stream, other methods of sales and reuse should be explored by having an outside consultant evaluate and make recommendations. Investments will be needed at Lion Surplus to deal with greater volume, improved infrastructure for materials management, and better communications to educate and inform students, employees, and visitors. While these investments are likely to be substantial, the rewards aver very substantial as well.

For the farm waste component, the number of sources for greenhouse and other on- campus agricultural and farm organic waste streams is relatively small. Direct contact with facility managers and collection staff can determine items, quantities, any contamination concerns and possible separation methods for these items. Regular reassessment intervals for larger off-campus animal waste steams will generate data suitable for measuring achievement.

These issues should be studied as time and funding allows in the next two years.

Returns and Impacts

Hazardous Building Materials & Construction Debris

Current disposal costs (July 2019)

Clean fill: $6.00/ton
Construction debris: $70.00
Residual Waste (friable asbestos): $60.00/ton
Special Handling Municipal (non-friable asbestos): $60.00/ton

Most of the disposal costs for Penn State construction debris are built into construction contracts, so are difficult to assess. However, it is expected costs will increase, no matter what option is followed. The long-term environmental benefits would include reduced impacts to available and future landfill capacity; re-use of building materials which could lower the need for new materials; and the environmental impacts of producing building products solely from raw materials.

Chemical, Biological, and Radioactive Waste

These specialty waste streams represent very high liability risk, both in terms of human health and regulatory compliance. Each one of these waste streams needs to develop a tracking metric that can identify efficiencies but also assure the needed funds will be available to match the program growth over time. The chemical waste stream has been underfunded for several years and the infrastructure needs upgrades. In addition, each of these three waste streams needs a business contingency plan that is reviewed regularly and understood by the relevant employees. It is recommended that a third-party environmental consulting firm perform a compliance audit (under attorney-client privilege) for the chemical waste operations. The radiological waste stream had a peer review performed in 2018 and all recommendations have been enacted. The biological waste stream issued a request for proposal (RFP) for outsourcing the process; the response proposals serve as the process contingency plan. The RFP was completed in 2016 and was verified to still be accurate in 2018.

Of particular concern is the aging incinerator used to dispose of biological tissue from large animal carcasses from animal science facilities, laboratory animals, etc. The outsourcing contingency described in the previous paragraph is not a cost effective long term solution. Current state-of-the-art technology for this waste stream is called chemical tissue digestion, and there are several manufacturers that have supplies systems for peer institutions. Prices range from $800,000 to $3.5 million for units capable of processing 3000 to 10,000 lbs/day, with permitting and construction timelines of 6 months to over 3 years depending on state regulations.

Universal Waste

Like the chemical, biological, and radiological waste streams, each of the Universal Waste streams requires a metric and process tracking mechanism. Currently, we rely entirely on regulators for compliance measurement. It is recommended that Universal Waste be included in any environmental compliance audit. Data for the quantity, broken down by stream and points of generation, is currently not readily available. Noting that “what gets measured gets managed,” Penn State should establish measures and oversight reporting channels. This Task Force report presents a timely opportunity for tightening our compliance program for each of the universal waste streams.

Opportunities include: training, labeling, packaging, and inventory management. Fluorescent light generation is very different than our waste oil generation and requires different processes. These waste streams are also prone to episodic events where large quantities are generated in a short period of time with little to no notice for downstream handlers. This puts a strain on the entire management process.

Lion Surplus

The result of success with Lion Surplus could result in less material ending up in the landfill. If new or upgraded facilities are required the near term costs might be slightly higher, but in the long term a more effective materials recovery system will decrease landfill costs and increase revenue with Surplus sales.

Farm Organic Waste

The previously mentioned farm waste inventory will provide vital information with which to explore near term and mid-term efficiencies, opportunities, and the potential for revenue generation. The new anaerobic digester required a large capital investment in both facilities and equipment, and there is substantial capacity that is currently undersubscribed.

A few long-term benefits from anaerobic digestion include odor reduction, reduced loss of soil nutrients, and teaching, research, and extension opportunities. Long-term costs and financial benefits for on-campus wastes are unknown until items are identified. Long term costs and financial benefits for anaerobic digestion will include:

  • Equipment and facility maintenance (cost)
  • Labor (cost)
  • Capital replacement (cost)
  • Energy production (benefit)
  • Potential for reduced soil nutrient purchases (benefit)
  • Reduced sand purchases (benefit)

These strategies should be reexamined at a three-year interval.

Case Study: Anaerobic Digestion at Penn State

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 include increased renewable energy use as a critical target (Goal #7). (1)  While Penn State has made great progress on its internal goals, over 200,000 mt of CO2 eq must still be reduced in order to reach a carbon neutral University status by 2030. (2) While current renewable energy projects will help a great deal, the University does not have a strategy in place that will account for the reduction of 200,000 mt of CO2 eq by 2030. Beyond that, further reductions will require a paradigm shift that will include both energy efficiency and negative carbon emission strategies to offset those positive emissions from transportation, including airfare and community. In this context, the University should investigate all potential waste to energy strategies that will capitalize on a waste stream problem and transform it into a renewable energy solution.

A feasibility study is needed to determine the economic and environmental costs and benefits of utilizing the University’s pre- and/or post-consumer food waste (grease, scraps, etc.) and the University Airport’s propylene glycol (de-icing fluid) at the Wastewater Treatment Plant’s primary anaerobic digesters. Adding these additional feedstocks into the digester’s current mixture of sewage sludge could generate a greater production of biogas from the operation. It has been observed that gas production rate (GPR) can increase 0.8-5.5 times when co-digesting food and dairy manure when compared to digesting dairy manure alone. (3) This could thus incentivize use of the biogas to generate electricity in a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facility for the University’s use and ultimately drawdown the total amount of methane and carbon dioxide emissions produced.

Anaerobic digestion can also serve as a useful waste management tool as it can provide a nutrient rich effluent for fertilizer use. In the case of University Park’s wastewater treatment plant, land application of biosolids is not currently feasible in accordance with DEP regulations. A feasibility analysis should be conducted to conclude whether or not application of these biosolids to reclaimed mining territory or upgrading the biosolids to a Class A verification for direct land use would be more practical for the University to pursue in order to prevent the biosolids from entering the landfill.

Additional investments, either at the composting site or integrated with an anaerobic digester, will be required to address the contamination issue detailed at the beginning of this report. An immediate switch to more biodegradable food service ware will create challenges of its own. The current compost facility at University Park does not have the proper pre-processing equipment needed to handle the increased levels of compostable material (cutlery, plates, cups, etc.) generated at the University. A feasibility study would help determine whether pre- processing equipment, multiple screening mechanisms, and/or an on-site de-packager machine is needed. In addition, it is recommended that the University investigate the use of an in-vessel compost system like that of Ohio University.

Ultimately, the University must implement an integrated and effective strategy to manage pre and post-consumer food waste. If the co-digestion feasibility study demonstrates that only pre-consumer food waste is best to include in the digester, then an audit and feasibility study for managing post-consumer waste must be conducted. If composting is determined to be the best way to manage post-consumer food waste (e.g. office composting, front of house dining purchases), potential options to explore include an in-vessel rotating drum or an aerated composting system. The ultimate solution will be determined by the Office of Physical Plant and other university stakeholders.


(1): United Nations. “Energy — United Nations Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/energy/.

(2): Penn State University. (2018). Office of Physical Plant Energy Report. Retrieved from Robert Cooper.

(3): Li, R., Chen, S. & Li, X. Applied Biochemistry Biotechnology (2010) 160:643. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12010-009-8533-z.