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New Vision Environmental students create prizewinning sustainability projects


New Vision Environmental Science students
create prize-winning sustainability projects

What could be improved about your local food system to make it better for the environment?

That was the question students in the OCM BOCES New Vision Environmental Science program analyzed recently for a contest sponsored by Chipotle and Earth Force.

As a result, students jumped into three major community projects related to composting, gardening, and recycling. Their efforts have resulted in a trio of creative ventures and prize money to support that work: All three projects won $1,000 from Chipotle and Earth Force for placing among the top 15 entries in the national “Sustainability Challenge.”

“I thought all these projects were great,” New Vision Instructor Chad DeVoe said.

In all three, he added, students sometimes learned humbling life lessons about the challenges of implementing large-scale projects in their neighboring communities. Nonetheless, they all persevered to bring their projects to life in unique ways.

Here are the details:

‘Pedal People Compost Service’

Students involved: Margaret Starr (Cortland), Logan Payne (Homer), Gabe Ector (Homer), Grace Bauman (Cortland), Sam Bieber (Homer)

Students have launched a pilot project that will soon have them riding bicycles to a nearby neighborhood to collect food scraps and other organic waste from volunteer residents so they can use it for a compost pile at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

To help them out, students in the OCM BOCES welding program at the Cortlandville Campus built a bicycle trailer for transporting the food-scrap containers based on a service they researched called the “Pedal People Compost Service.”

Now that spring break is over, students are planning to finalize the participant list and collect the waste — fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, dryer lint, and more — so it can be picked up on a regular basis and transported to Lime Hollow. Later, they hope to sell the nutrient-rich soil in the Lime Hollow store and return it back to the neighborhood residents.

Why is composting so important? Students can speak succinctly about that. They recently visited a landfill in East Homer, for example, where food scraps contribute to 24% of the landfill space and represent one reason that a new, expensive landfill has to be built in about 16 years. In addition, the food that decomposes in a landfill produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat, according to scientific research

One student, Gabe Ector of Homer, said he initially was mildly interested in the project, but the more he learned, the more passionately he became involved.

 “Just getting people to compost takes a lot of education,” he said.

Initially, students pursued a much larger project. They met with the Seven Valleys Health Coalition, the mayor of Cortland, and the head of the Cortland County Environmental Committee to rekindle an idea for building a new, large-scale vermicomposting facility in Cortland. Vermicomposting is different from regular composting in that worms are added to the waste to speed up the decomposition.

In the end, they pitched their detailed proposal, including possible locations, to the Cortland County Legislature’s Agriculture, Planning and Environmental Committee (see photo above). To fund the project, students told the committee about grants that are still available from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Central New York Regional Developmental Council that could generate more than $300,000 for the project.

They also noted the timeliness: A new state law, effective this year, requires businesses and institutions that generate “an annual average of two tons of wasted food per week or more to donate excess edible food and recycle all remaining food scraps if they are within 25 miles of an organics recycler (composting facility).”

In a summary of their project, the students wrote: “Our goal is to help this plan finally materialize … After emails and presentations with authority figures within the community, there is now renewed interest in this project. At this stage in our project, it is now in the city's hands to plan and create this facility.”

Gabe added later: “What we were trying to do was get the conversation going again, and we did.”

In the photos: Top right: Students stuff envelopes with flyers about the pilot composting program in a nearby neighborhood. Middle: Standing at the site of the compost pile at Lime Hollow Nature Center are Sam Bieber (Homer), Logan Payne (Homer) and Gabe Ector (Homer). Bottom: A photo of the trailer being built by the OCM BOCES welding program under the direction of instructor Kevin Auyer.

Need Toppings for Your Pizza? 

Students involved: Asa Terwilliger (Cortland), Blair Wakula (Homer), Boston Lockwood (Cortland), Raiden Sturdevant (Homer), and Jake Camp (Homer)

Another student project will result in an expanded community garden at Lime Hollow Nature Center to provide herbs, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and other ingredients to complement a new, outdoor pizza oven that was recently built for campers and other guests. About $650 of the Chipotle prize money will help the group buy seeds, straw, gardening equipment, and smaller tools for children so they can participate in the garden as well. One student, Rauden Sturdevant of Homer, has already outlined the seed prices for a dozen items to plant.

Students said the overall idea came about because community gardens are a relatively simple way to promote sustainable agriculture by reducing food and transportation costs and water runoff. Community gardens also promote healthy nutrition and exercise.

“What better way to improve a local food system than a community garden?” said Jacob Camp of Homer.

Like the composting group, students initially had bigger aspirations than the community garden at Lime Hollow. At first, students wanted a larger community garden to serve the greater Cortland-area community: They approached a series of government officials in the city and parks departments but encountered “lots of roadblocks” in getting the plan off the ground, the students said.

When the pizza oven was built, a sustainable way to provide ingredients for the pizzas, especially herbs, fit a practical need for campers and other guests at Lime Hollow Nature Center. Students also grafted apple trees as part of the community garden project because it’s the only way to get sweet fruit.

In the top photo: Standing at the site of the community garden are Raiden Sturdevant (Homer), Asa Terwilliger (Cortland), Boston Lockwood (Cortland), Blair Wakula (Homer). Bottom: The new brick pizza oven for Lime Hollow guests.

“The Amber Wave”

Students involved: Austin Baker (DeRuyter), Dominic Forrest (Marathon), Mark Swan (Tully), and Malik Barr (Fayetteville-Manlius)

For a third project, students have connected with a professor at Cornell University to recycle urine, which can be used as an effective source of fertilizer and soil builder.

“We too were once blind to see the importance of urine, or, as we call it, ‘liquid gold,’" the students wrote in their slide presentation. “We are also well aware that this sentence sounds insane until you begin to understand this importance for yourself.”

According to the University of Michigan, about half the world’s food supply depends on synthetic fertilizers produced from nonrenewable resources, the students said. At the same time, water and wastewater systems consume 2% of U.S. electricity, with nutrient removal being one of the most energy-intensive processes. Urine has the perfect amount of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium), with the ratio being 10-1-4 — better than the commercialized ‘balanced’ 10-10-10 ratio of standard fertilizer. 

Students contacted scientist and professor Dr. Rebecca Nelson from Cornell, who is involved in the “Amber Wave” project, to see if she would be willing to partake in the collection of urine produced at Lime Hollow. She was. Students then collaborated with John Fuchs, who owns a small business called “The Widget Factory.” Fuchs created an outhouse known as the EcoLu, or FUCHS (Feces and Urine Collection Hospitality Suite), which separates the solids and liquids that are put into it. The director of Lime Hollow Nature Center not only approved it, he also gave the students $350 toward its construction. OCM BOCES contributed to the project as well, since New Vision students will primarily be using this bathroom when they switch to a new classroom next year.

Small signs in the bathroom explain its significance, sharing facts such as:

  • You can grow 320 pounds of grain with the amount of urine collected from one adult in a year.

  • 4,000 gallons of drinkable water would be saved each year by not wasting water flushing the toilets in an average household.

  • 9 billion gallons of chemical fertilizer could be replaced with the urine Americans produce each year.

Students said they were happy with the project and thankful for everyone who supported it.

“We were very lucky to have acquired all the help we did, and are very grateful for all the donations given,” they wrote. “This could not have been possible without all the assistance.”  

In the bottom photo: Malik Barr (F-M) shows off the educational signage they produced for EcoLu patrons