Students Reach Out to Local Businesses, Reduce Pollution

Opportunities are on the rise for students interested in preventing pollution, improving air quality, and pioneering sustainable technologies in their communities. University campuses, long considered hubs of innovation, are beginning to incorporate technological centers which aim to help local businesses, while also providing valuable experience to students.

These university-based centers reach far beyond their own campuses, sometimes even beyond their state lines. “Universities have three missions,” says Cam Metcalf of the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Pollution Prevention Center. “They are education, research and service. What we’re implementing through our center is service.”

In 2005, the Kentucky Pollution Prevention Center developed the Technology Diffusion Initiative (TDI), which provides technical information and demonstrations to local businesses in order to improve their environmental performance and reduce operational costs. Technicians with TDI visited 26 businesses and focused their efforts on reducing general waste and usage of natural gas, chemicals and water.

Over the course of one year, the Technical Diffusion Initiative reported a total savings between the participating businesses, of over $600,000 in operating costs and a reduction of over 283,000 lbs. of general and chemical wastes.. One business, Denyo Manufacturing Corporation, KPPC’s efforts reduced natural gas usage by 70 MMBtu (saving over 8,000 lbs. of CO2), totaling an 11% reduction of the company’s overall usage. Another business, KPPC, saved over 12,000,000 gallons of water, reducing that business’s annual water usage by 35.5%.

While the reduced pollution is laudable, the major perk these centers provide is the opportunity for students to work with local businesses, earn credit towards their degrees, and even provide jobs after graduation.

In a given year, “we may employ two to five student interns, or ‘co-ops,’” says Cam Metcalf, executive director for the KPPC. “Our aim is to present proven technologies to industries that reduce energy usage,” says Metcalf. “A lot of companies don’t want to be the ‘pioneers.’ They wait until they see their competitors saving money with these proven technologies before they’ll want to try it themselves.” By doing the necessary research into new technology, students take the uncertainty out of pollution prevention measures.

Recently, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources awarded Drury University a $52,000 grant to fund the Ozarks Center for Sustainable Solutions. The new Ozarks Center is housed on the Drury University campus, but it will primarily serve regional businesses and organizations, assisting them with pollution prevention technical assistance and sustainability awareness.

“Drury University will be providing the Ozarks Center with student interns,” says Douglas Neidigh, program manager for the Ozarks Center for Sustainable Solutions. “This allows each participating business to be partnered with its own intern, starting in the Spring 2009 semester. The intern will provide research and prepare reports for the host business, showing the business a breakdown of what actions can be taken to decrease its pollution, and how much money can be saved in the process.”

The new Ozarks Center is modeled after other successful university-based programs in the country, such as the KPPC, and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. In fact, the Ozark Center’s Douglas Neidigh worked as a student intern for the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center while in graduate school.

“We tend to hire only one or two student interns a year,” says Gary Miller, director of the ISTC. More often, the ISTC works with the Illinois EPA’s existing student pollution prevention internship program by assisting the interns with pollution prevention training, technical resources and equipment. The ISTC works with many Illinois manufacturing businesses, helping them prevent waste at the source. “We look at waste as a manufacturing defect,” says Miller. “A lot of the [pollution and waste prevention] programs we work on with businesses can pay for themselves within six months or a year, so all the money saved after that point is profit.”

One of the ISTC’s projects right now is small-scale production of biodiesel from waste streams, such as used cooking oils. The ISTC operates a Ford F-250 pickup truck on campus using 100% biodiesel made from waste cooking oil from a student dining hall. The truck is used for teaching demonstrations by the Technology Center at local schools, illustrating how waste cooking oil from their own dining halls can fuel their school buses.

Although barely out of the gate itself, the Ozarks Center is already leading the charge in creating a Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) for Missouri counties in the Ozarks region. The CAAP will focus on ways people and businesses can reduce ground-level ozone pollution and improve air quality, ensuring that the counties stay well below national air quality standards.

These efforts are not insignificant. The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable cites that between 2001-2003, 29 pollution prevention centers across the United States (six of which are university-based) collectively worked to reduce energy usage by 1.2 billion kilowatt hours, conserve 44 billion gallons of potable water, and avoid 5.8 billion pounds of air, water and waste pollution. The cost savings of these centers are five times their annual budgets and 25 times the federal investment, proving that they provide value beyond academics.

See More:

Universities in Mass. and N.H. Bring Sustainability to Public EPA

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