Sustainability Focus

A recent Graduate School Challenge Grant project takes a local approach to the growing problem of food waste.


USF civil and environmental engineering graduate student Robert Bair in the greenhouse at Learning Gate Community School in Lutz.


By Kevin Burke

Special to USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (April 19, 2013) — For many students at Learning Gate Community School, the best part of lunchtime is when it’s over. Not that they’re especially eager to get back to class, but because that’s when they get to put some of their leftover food scraps in the little yellow pails that are important components of the school’s “green kitchen” program.


Ultimately, the pails are collected and their contents — namely “green stuff” such as fruits and vegetables — are turned into compost.


Now Robert Bair, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida, and several classmates have added a new dimension in a research project called Pathways to Organic Waste Reduction, Reuse, and Recycle or POW3R, demonstrating sustainable food waste management.


The digester itself is an excellent example of sustainability, having been cobbled together using two reclaimed 40-gallon hot water heaters. The system was a highlight of the school’s recent Ecofest 2013 event, which attracted roughly 4,000 attendees from throughout the Tampa Bay region.

Bair and his team have built and installed an anaerobic digester in a small shed on the K-6 charter school’s 40-acre campus in Lutz as a test bed for turning non-compostable food waste (mostly meats and liquid wastes) into fertilizer. The nutrient-rich slurry the apparatus produces is used to support new plant growth in a nearby greenhouse and distributed elsewhere in the school’s expansive organic garden.


The digester also generates biogas, which can be used for heating or power generation.


The program has proved so popular with the kids, said Bair, that he’s actually seen youngsters purposely leave a few bites of sandwich or SpaghettiOs uneaten “just so they have something to put in the bucket.”


“We don’t really encourage that,” he quickly added. “But still, it’s interesting to see them respond to the project. To me, that’s what this whole experience is about, working with the younger generation to try to influence them to think about sustainability and what it means in terms of their future.”


Each year, with funds provided by the office of USF Provost Ralph Wilcox and the university’s Office of Research and Innovation, the Graduate School awards up to eight challenge grants of $5,000 each to interdisciplinary teams of four or five students (nearly 200 students total since 2009) involved in projects focused on one of several research categories including diabetes and autoimmune diseases, neuroscience, global issues, and the arts as well as sustainability and/or the environment.


In addition, the grants aim to encourage partnerships with area industry and organizations such as Learning Gate, where for a number of years USF Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Daniel Yeh has worked with the school on real-world problems through projects on green buildings and rainwater harvesting. For example, the school boasts a network of cisterns and pipes to capture rainwater runoff and reuse it for the campus’ bathrooms, thereby reducing the need (and cost) for fresh water to provide the school’s toilets.


Yeh and his students also have recently built an innovative hands-on learning platform called BBRATS, for BioEnergy/BioRecycling Research and Training Station, which combines the challenge grant food waste project with projects on global sanitation (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and algae biofuel (National Science Foundation) to teach students that problems on food, energy, water and wastes are all intimately linked.


“Learning Gate is thrilled with our ongoing partnership with USF. Our students are benefitting daily from the onsite BBRATS project by observing the system hands-on,” said Principal Michelle Mason, adding that BBRATS and the food digester project were major points of interest during Learning’s Gate’s recent Ecofest 2013 event that attracted roughly 4,000 attendees from throughout the Tampa Bay region.


Recent studies indicate that up to 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year eventually goes to waste — more than 33 million tons, worth an estimated $165 billion, in 2012. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent since 1970, according to scientists with the Natural Resources Defense Council.


And among the largest sources of that waste are the nation’s thousands of school cafeteria’s, reported Bair, explaining the genesis of the latest partnership with Learning Gate, where the roughly 600 students leave, on average, 10.5 kilograms or 23 pounds of unconsumed food each day.


“From a systems perspective, that represents a lot of wasted energy, as well,” Bair said, referring not only to the energy used to produce the food in the first place, but also to package it, to transport it to market, to store it, to prepare it in meals, and — traditionally, if it ends up being thrown away — haul it to a landfill, where it creates a rash of other social, economic, and environmental problems.


“So our objective as engineers, anthropologists, and geographers was to look at all of the elements that contribute to food waste and find ways to potentially mitigate some of those factors.”


Of the members of any challenge grant team, at least two must represent different colleges. Also working on the food digester project with Bair were Rebecca Loraamm, a graduate student in geography, environment and planning, and Steven Williams, a graduate student in anthropology, both in the College of Arts and Sciences. Joining in the effort, too, were Herby Jean and Onur Ozcan, like Bair students in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.


Other faculty mentors on the project are Becky Zarger, assistant professor of anthropology, and Joni Downs, assistant professor in geographic information systems (GIS).


In addition to building the digester — itself an example of sustainability, being constructed out of two reclaimed 40-gallon hot water heaters — the team also looked at the cultural and social variables that influence the quantity of food waste produced, investigated the sustainable reuse pathways for the digester’s byproducts, and used GIS to identify several other locations in the Tampa Bay area where waste reduction and recovery programs may be applicable.


“The mission of the Graduate School is to build leaders through excellence in collaborative graduate education and research, while also supporting USF’s strategic efforts to expand local and global engagement initiatives that strengthen and sustain healthy communities and improve quality of life,” said Graduate School Dean Karen Liller.

“By enabling projects such as those at Learning Gate Community School, the Challenge Grant Program allows our graduate students to not only build the research and interdisciplinary collaboration skills that will make them more competitive in the job market, but also contribute to the discovery and application of knowledge that can make a real difference in finding solutions to many real-world problems.”

The challenge grant initiative is an off-shoot of a program Liller first worked with at USF Health. She has since expanded the grants to all graduate students.

At least once a month, Liller and a Graduate School mentor meet with the challenge grant awardees to assess each project, the results of which often end up being published in peer-reviewed journals or presented by the students at professional conferences. Many participants also use the grants as the basis of future theses and dissertations, to bolster their employment prospects, or to seek further funding.

Among the projects approved for 2013-14 are several that extend the program’s outreach and impact in the Tampa Bay region, including one focused on improving drinking water quality in Pinellas County, another looking to evaluate the sustainability of aquaponics as a method of local food production, and a third that will assess beach profile data along the Gulf Coast in order to better forecast beach change and aid coastal managers in efficiently managing public resources and critical coastal habitat.

Kevin Burke can be reached at 813-974-0192.