James Souder, a 2013 alumnus of Eastern Mennonite University now studying at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, received the 2017 Ice River Springs Master’s Scholarship for Sustainability. (Photo by Matthew Garrett/Yale FES)

EMU grad at Yale earns scholarship for recyclable materials research

An Eastern Mennonite University alumnus studying at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has been awarded a scholarship to support his research on automated systems to reduce the waste of recyclable materials.

James Souder received the 2017 Ice River Springs Master’s Scholarship for Sustainability from the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), a North Carolina-based charity that “awards and recognizes excellence in master’s and doctoral solid waste management research and education.”

Souder graduated from EMU in 2013 with an environmental and social sustainability degree and minors in photography, biology and economics. This spring he will complete a master’s degree in environmental management at Yale with a specialization in industrial ecology and green design.

Research to close the loop

Souder’s research “Closing the Loop and Increasing Material Recovery in Supply Chains and Production Systems” reflects his focus on innovations for waste management and pollution prevention. It involves embedding recycling information on or in products so that automatic sorting machines can reduce human error and ultimately divert recyclables from landfills.

According a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only two percent of plastic packaging material is recycled into the same or similar-quality applications, and just eight percent more is recycled into lower-value applications. The rest is leaked to the environment, dumped in landfills, incinerated or lost to recycling processes.

“Our consumption patterns as a society are linear, where most products are made, used and finally disposed,” Souder  said. “I want to move us towards a circular system, where materials can continue to be used while minimizing our impact on the environment and human health.”

The topic arose during an earlier project that Souder was working on for a green engineering and sustainable design course at Yale, in which his group designed a prototype for a machine that would separate bar-coded recycling items.

“We have a long way to go to improve our collection systems, focusing our efforts on waste streams that have the largest environmental impact throughout the product’s life, and designing our products so the materials can be easily separated and recovered,” Souder said.

The EREF scholarship is funded by Ice River Springs, an Ontario-based company that touts its own plastics recycling facility and “closed-loop production.”

‘Not surprised’

“We’re not surprised at all that James received this award,” said Dr. Doug Graber Neufeld, professor of biology and director of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions. “James showed an exceptional ability to combine his skills from different disciplines in addressing real-world problems. He has consistently worked to making a better world, and he exemplifies what we train our students to do once they graduate.”

In a 2017 Q&A, Souder said that EMU provided him with “a holistic framework of sustainability that incorporated society and economics into environmental topics,” he said. “EMU’s structure allowed me to explore environmental issues from a variety of academic disciplines, ranging from economics to ecology and photography…. The variety of courses I was able to take, along with EMU’s global focus, provided a strong framework which I’m able to build on for further study.”

After graduating from EMU, Souder participated in the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience program, and later deferred his acceptance into Yale to serve as a photojournalist in Burkina Faso through Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together program.

Following completion of his master’s degree at Yale this spring, Souder plans to work on projects that will “make meaningful and measurable positive environmental changes on a global scale.”

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