While Jennifer Russell’s analysis of a business, community, or facility is inspired by nature, the impact of her work benefits the environment.

“The premise of the field of industrial ecology is looking to nature for system innovation and design and mimicry opportunities,” said Russell, assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. “At the most fundamental level, there is no waste in nature.”

Russell hypothesizes that if facilities can be viewed as organisms and one understands what goes in and what goes out, one can get a better idea of whether the collection of systems is functioning and metabolizing in a healthy manner.  

Through seed funding provided by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, Russell and her students are working with a retirement company, Retirement Unlimited Incorporated (RUI), to research how it could increase its sustainability efforts. Russell’s findings led to the development and continuation of a collaborative relationship affecting not only the stakeholders involved, but also in senior living communities located throughout Virginia and Florida.

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Russell’s work began during summer 2021, with two of her undergraduate students conducting a material flow analysis comparing the weight of materials flowing into three communities with waste flowing out, and found that between 45 and 70 percent of the total waste weight was generated from food. 

“In the case of food, because of the large portions that were being served, so much of that good food — good nutrition — was going straight into the garbage,” said Russell. The waste, exacerbated by practices adopted for COVID-19, indicated an economic and nutritional health problem for the facilities.

“It’s easy to talk about being sustainable in our communities, but taking that next step is the key,” said Matt Winningham, Retirement Unlimited Incorporated's director of strategy and managed services. “We look forward to utilizing this valuable information to instill sustainability initiatives at both the community and the home office level.”

This summer, Russell and three undergraduate students expanded their research to look into the company’s use of energy. “We are assessing how much electricity is consumed on site and where it is located. We can use data from the U.S. government to tell us what portion of that electricity is coal-, solar-, or hydro-based,” said Russell. “And that gives us the health of their energy profile in terms of better or worse for the environment.”

Although final statistics are not available yet, Russell believes the newest communities will have the healthiest energy profile. “Their interior lights are on timers and their appliances are mostly Energy Star,” said Russell. “Automated elements are most energy efficient over those dependent on humans.”

Another component of Russell’s research, circular economy, takes the analogy of natural systems and metabolism a step further. “It’s really forcing systems thinking about consumption and metabolism and connecting with other ideas,” said Russell. “It’s about what we consume, how that’s transformed or used, and what we do with it afterwards.”

That impact has been significant for the residents. “One of the reasons we had this opportunity is because the company’s leadership heard from its residents that they were concerned about sustainability,” Russell said. 

Residents have further benefited from Russell’s research through RUI University, a program designed to promote lifelong learning for all of the Virginia and Florida senior living communities.

“We became part of a sustainability virtual class series,” said Russell. “In one of them, the students presented our study. They walked the residents through the methodology and the main findings from the report.”

“This project is a great example of how students have experienced hands-on research while benefiting the company and educating the residents with their outreach,” said Winningham. “We appreciate the opportunity to partner with Dr. Russell and her team of students and to gather concrete data to give us the baseline for researching alternative methods of operation at several of our communities in Virginia.”

Three undergraduate students assisting Russell will continue with analyzing and interpreting the data and making recommendations for improving sustainable practices in the future.   

“This junior consulting position was a wonderful hands-on experience directly related to my college studies and greater career goals,” said Cole Zimmerman, who is in the sustainable biomaterials program. “It has sparked a passion for sustainability consulting that I did not have prior to this work.”

“For me, this research emphasized the importance of understanding product systems and consumer habits before designing any item,” said Ugochi Chukwueke, who is studying industrial design. “Approaching a product concept holistically and intuitively in the initial ideation design phase can avoid a significant amount of waste during and at the end of a product’s life cycle.”

“The research with Dr. Russell has given me great insight into the effort that goes into sustainable consulting work,” said Hannah Gruspier, also in the sustainable biomaterials program. “The waste characterization, energy audit, and communication skills I am learning now are preparing me for the kind of job I hope to have post-graduation.”

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