Reduce the Risk
Interns Use Their Brainpower to Solve Industrial Pollution Issues in Nebraska
Story by Ashley Washburn, Illustrations by Mike Jackson
This summer, Tom Soucie is getting a crash course in the manufacturing business. He admits it’s more complex than he realized, with vast amounts of regulations to follow and paperwork to document. He has the added challenge of being the new guy who has been hired to figure out how his company can become more environmentally friendly, a hot topic today.
That’s a tall order for someone who is just entering his junior year in college.
Soucie is an intern at Molex as part of the Partners in Pollution Prevention Program (P3), operated by the College of Engineering and University of Nebraska Extension with grants from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Now in its 11th year, P3 helps Nebraska’s businesses, especially small- and medium-sized ones, stay at the forefront of environmental sustainability. The program pairs Nebraska companies with undergraduate students who perform environmental waste assessments and suggest ways to reduce waste or recycle products used during the manufacturing process. Projects generally target the areas of solid waste, water conservation, hazardous materials and energy efficiency.
The impact is significant: P3 has helped Nebraska businesses save a potential $9.7 million through waste reduction and diverted over 39 million pounds of solid waste from landfills.
One of the unique things about P3 is that it supports the three core values of a land-grant university, said Bruce Dvorak, program director and associate professor of civil engineering.
“We have a teaching component where we’re teaching students about ways to be cutting edge environmentally. We have an outreach mission where we’re assisting business people. We also help with the research mission because we’re helping businesses become more sustainable by performing research that helps develop new technologies that produce less waste,” he said.
Soucie, a UNL civil engineering student, said he applied for an internship to gain real-world experience and help him decide whether environmental engineering is the right field for him. He is evaluating Molex’s practices of recycling plastics and cardboard packaging materials.
“Molex has been increasing production, which is great, but their recycling-reuse programs needed to be evaluated,” Soucie said.
Halfway through his internship, Soucie has already suggested that Molex replace some of its aerosol products with bulk liquids.
The chance to get a fresh perspective from someone outside the company is one reason why Molex has hired P3 interns three times, said Robb Maddox, the plant’s environmental manager. He said he’s found that interns are prepared and knowledgeable about state and federal environmental regulations so they can handle projects with professionalism beyond their years.
A few years ago, Molex wanted to reduce the amount of hazardous waste used during the manufacturing process. The intern’s recommendations included replacing certain solvents with less toxic low-flash solvents, replacing solvent tanks with recycling tanks, and substituting aerosols with comparable products that are packaged in squirt bottles and don’t contain air pollutants.
Maddox said as a result of those changes, the company has noticed reductions in cost and the amount of energy expended.
“P3 allows us to have somebody spend the time to research projects that are important to the company but could end up on the back burner if you don’t have the time to do the background work and research,” he said.
Several years after the intern makes his or her recommendations, P3 students or staff conducts follow-up interviews to gauge the impact of the interns’ technical assistance. Between 2001 and 2006, 82 percent of the program’s clients reported implementing at least one recommendation made by an intern.
Is there resistance to following an intern’s recommendations?
Fortunately, that’s rare, Dvorak said.
“Our clients tend to be what I call the ‘white hats’,” Dvorak said. “They’re clients who are already in compliance with most regulations and are wanting to get better. If there happens to be resistance, we encourage students to understand what the source is.”
Dvorak said 60 percent of clients save money as a result of becoming more environmentally friendly. But even those who don’t often appeciate the intangible benefits, such as reduced liability and risk of injury from using hazardous materials, he said.
“Most clients are savvy and know that while the intern’s recommendation may not reduce their bills, there are a lot of other ways that it benefits the bottom line,” Dvorak said.
The program’s four staff members have perfected a method to match companies with the right intern. The first step is to recruit clients, which Dvorak described as an ongoing networking process. Staffers attend environmental safety meetings at businesses across Nebraska to promote P3, and many clients have gotten involved as a result of those presentations. Other times, Dvorak said, the program will get client referrals from other pollution prevention providers such as WasteCap Nebraska, DEQ, Extension and other university departments.
Beginning in late fall, the P3 staff contacts potential clients to discuss possible projects. The heavy lifting begins in February, when the staff and the client meet to flesh out what the project entails and decide whether it’s feasible.
“With a third of the potential clients, we get to this point and decide mutually that the potential project won’t work,” Dvorak said.
Early spring also is prime time for recruiting interns, and students vying for a P3 internship can expect some stiff competition. Only 10 to 15 students are selected each summer; Dvorak estimates that two to three times as many apply. P3 recruits primarily at UNL, but also draws top students from Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Part of the program’s funding comes from the EPA, Dvorak explained, so P3 has a responsibility to provide opportunities for students throughout the region.
“This is the kind of experience many students are looking for,” Dvorak said.
In matching interns with projects, P3 staff considers the student’s academic background, interests and personality. Then the interns have an interview with their potential bosses to ensure it’s a good match.
Prior to starting an internship, students take a rigorous two-week course to learn about EPA regulations and how to write reports that communicate technical concepts to business leaders.
“Students are often good at coming up with ideas but don’t have much experience putting them into a concise report to share,” he said.
The P3 program also invites guest speakers from the EPA and local businesses. Students are encouraged to build a professional relationship with these speakers and contact them for advice during their internship.
Throughout his or her internship, the student remains in contact with the P3 staff, who have put together an extensive project description that outlines what is supposed to be accomplished and the timeline to complete the work.
“That is one of the things we sell,” Dvorak said. “Our staff partially supervises the students to take the load off these very busy environmental managers to make sure the student is working on the project and is making progress. We’ve learned that it’s very important to have good documentation.”
In all, more than 150 students have been through the program. After graduation, interns have gone on to become environmental managers, environmental lawyers and writers for trade publications.
“It’s had a real impact on how they think and how they’re able to be environmental leaders within their own places of employment,” Dvorak said.
Sometimes, P3 is a starting point for future employment. Maddox said Molex has extended students’ internships after their P3 commitment ends.
“Getting a junior-level intern that spends a few more years with us after they’ve completed the project has been very successful for us,” Dvorak said.
That mutually beneficial relationship between students and employers is a key ingredient of the program’s success, Dvorak said. It’s also opening doors to new businesses and projects in previously untapped areas, such as energy efficiency and water use.
The University of Missouri-Columbia and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources also are building programs modeled after Nebraska’s.
“Of course, that means there is more competition for the best students, but I’m happy to have that competition because it means there are great opportunities,” Dvorak said.
He predicts that with the baby boomer generation nearing retirement and growing public interest in environmental safety and management, opportunities abound for young engineers. Career Web sites regularly name environmental engineering as one of the fastest-growing professions.
“I am concerned that we won’t be able to produce enough educated people to meet the demand, though,” he said. “I already get quite a few calls from both the public and private sector in May to find out whether we have graduates that haven’t found a job yet. I get more calls than I have students. That alone tells me there is a real need.”
To find out how your business can get involved with P3, please visit www.p3.unl.edu
Engineering alumni will soon be receiving a short survey
|©2007 University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Engineering|