West Michigan-Based Design Competition Sparks Game-Changing Waste Management System for Hospitals
A waste management system design unveiled in Grand Rapids this past May would enable hospitals world-wide to achieve a seemingly rare feat: saving money by embracing environmental stewardship.
What’s more, this groundbreaking idea wasn’t conceived by professionals working on the city’s Medical Mile, as one might expect, but by undergraduate students from halfway around the world participating in Wege Prize, a West Michigan-born design competition that’s showcasing the future of problem solving on a global stage.
Spaak+, a team of students from the Netherlands, won top honors in the most recent iteration of the annual competition, developed by Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s (KCAD’s) Wege Center for Sustainable Design with the support of The Wege Foundation. The team wowed the judging panel of industry-leading movers and shakers with a cohesive proposal to treat hospital waste in a way that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes the potential of resources while dramatically reducing operating costs.
Currently, most hospitals dispose of solid waste via incineration, while waste water is typically filtered into existing municipal treatment systems. Such an approach has profoundly negative effects on the environment, from air pollution and ash byproducts to water contaminants entering the aquatic ecosystem.
Spaak+ designed an on-site treatment system that features separate streams for solid waste and wastewater. Wastewater is treated through a combination of existing treatment processes such as membrane filtration, oxidation, and an activated sludge bioreactor, in which air and bacteria combine to remove heavy metals, phosphates, and nitrogen from wastewater through binding. The clean water is then upcycled back into the hospital’s water system to be used for toilet flushing, reducing overall water consumption by 30-40%.
Solid waste is ground before being transported to a biodigester, which converts the waste into biogas. Biogas is a renewable energy source that could in turn be used to power the on-site treatment facility, making the system almost entirely self-sustaining in terms of energy consumption and drastically reducing operating costs for the hospital. Further value comes in the form of the extracted heavy metals, which can be sold to a third party for the purpose of upcycling.
Envisioning such a solution was made possible by the team’s transdisciplinary make-up and focus on creating a circular economy, both hallmarks of the Wege Prize competition. Wege Prize challenges transdisciplinary student teams to converge their perspectives, knowledge, and skills in pursuit of systemic design solutions to complex problems like the environmental issues surrounding treatment of hospital waste, and they must do so through the lens of the circular economy. Our current linear economic system is based on a model of extract-manufacture-dispose that relies, unrealistically, on vast reserves of expendable resources and an environment that can absorb unlimited waste. The circular economy, on the other hand, is characterized by a tightly-looped, restorative economic cycle in which resources can be re-adapted for use without limiting the desirability of products or the flow of revenue.
In this way, Wege Prize acts as both a creative sandbox, encouraging teams to freely experiment and rapidly prototype ideas, as well as a litmus test with which they can gauge the economic and social feasibility of those ideas.
As they honed their solution, Spaak+ conducted extensive research and solicited outside expertise to ensure the financial viability of their system. To keep hospitals’ initial costs low, the team focused on designing a system that could leverage existing infrastructure in a way that required minimal modification or renovation. Ultimately, the team determined that hospitals would need an initial capital investment of $3.5 million to install their system, followed by a $100,000 per year operating cost. The team also found that hospitals would net an average savings of $500,000 per year using the system, resulting in a full return on investment in approximately 5-10 years.
Earning second place in Wege Prize 2016 was KYCE, a team of women from Kenya that focused on creating self-sustaining systems for developing countries that can foster employment, improve sanitation and hygiene, enhance the livability of urban environments, and improve the overall health of communities.
Third place went to University of Michigan Sustainability Without Borders, which developed a solution that would help Technology for Tomorrow Ltd. – an existing company in Uganda that manufactures sanitary pads out of papyrus – adopt a circular model for meeting the heating and electricity needs of its production facilities through biomass gasification of papyrus and paper waste materials.
As for Spaak+, the team is now focused on the process of prototyping their solution in a real-world hospital setting, and is currently in conversation with hospitals and production companies to explore the idea of having another organization take the lead on implementing, testing, and refining the system the team designed.
Like the solutions it inspires, Wege Prize has itself been in a state of constant evolution since its inception in 2013. With generous funding from The Wege Foundation through 2020, the competition is poised to continue empowering the next generation of problem solvers with new ways of thinking, collaborating, and approaching systemic issues while inspiring them to design a better world.
Ready to join the future of problem solving? Spread the word about Wege Prize to students and professionals, mentor a team, or offer your expertise by contacting [email protected]
Wege Prize 2017 is open to any undergraduate student in the world. Team registration opens September 2016. For more info, go to wegeprize.org.