David Tonjes Recognized for Efforts in Improving Recycling

Tonjes Receives Eco Award from Westchester County’s Department of Environmental Facilities

David Tonjes, a research associate professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, has been honored with a prestigious 2024 Eco Award from Westchester County’s Department of Environmental Facilities at its fifth annual Eco Awards ceremony held at Glen Island Park on April 18. The Eco Awards recognize outstanding contributions to the environment and sustainability made by residents, students, schools, municipalities, businesses and organizations.

Tonjes was selected for his research designed to improve the management of solid waste in New York State. He has worked on the New York solid waste issue for more than 30 years, in both technical and policy applications. In 2021, Stony Brook University’s Waste Data and Analysis Center entered into a memorandum of understanding with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and was awarded $4.25 million to characterize solid waste and improve its recycling.

Tonjes’ team of undergraduate and graduate students, supervisors and faculty researchers have been sorting through 43 categories of garbage each summer. To date, they have sifted through and analyzed 50 tons of waste. They visited 11 different New York State sites in 2021, 17 in 2022, 19 in 2023, and they are projected to visit 21 this year.

Tonjes said, “There are 43 categories of waste, most of it is paper, food and plastics. Twenty percent is recyclable, and about two-thirds of the recyclables is paper and one-third is glass, metal, and plastic containers.”

Tonjes and students
Tonjes’ team sorting through the rubbage (from left to right): Tania Thomas, Alex Eichert and Ganesh Jothilingham.

“His leadership in Stony Brook’s research on improving solid waste management across New York State was a key factor in his selection. His work serves as an inspiration for residents and aligns perfectly with Stony Brook’s commitment to sustainability,” said Firman Firmansyah, a research supervisor and sampling specialist in the Waste Data and Analysis Center.

Tonjes said the purpose of this research is “to help the state find out how to recycle better.” His team reports on their findings, attends conferences, and writes research papers because they want to educate local managers on how to better manage their waste.

Westchester County showed their appreciation for his efforts, which have included three years of sampling at the Westchester transfer station.

Tonjes said, “I appreciate this award. I couldn’t have done this without my hard-working, dedicated team. The most satisfaction, however, comes from knowing that we may be finding ways to encourage better ways of recycling to help our planet.”

“David has been instrumental in leading solid waste research efforts in the Department of Technology and Society and across the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and this award is a clear indicator that the waste characterization research he has led is highly valued not only by the research community, but by municipalities across New York State,” said Klaus Mueller, chair of the Department of Technology and Society.

More About Prof. Tonjes

Tonjes did not begin his career with waste management in mind. He majored in liberal arts and became a math teacher, and then he thought about becoming a doctor. He enrolled at Stony Brook University and took a class in organic chemistry. He also took a course in computers and education in the Department of Technology and Society, where he was selected to participate in a grant research project to learn how restaurants recycle. He felt comfortable around restaurants, as he had worked as a waiter, and when he found out that he would get paid to research and to go to school, it was the perfect opportunity.

To advance in his career, he needed a doctorate degree. He studied at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and earned his PhD in coastal oceanography.

Then he became a professor in the Department of Technology and Society, where he has been working for 18 years. He has had this perpetual question on his mind — “How should you determine the constituents of garbage?”

“If we know what’s in garbage,” he said, “then we will know how to recycle better.”

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