Against a backdrop of wildfires, floods and drought, there is cause for optimism. Drexel Dragons from all walks of life are responding to perils the planet faces with creativity, collaboration and even a degree of confidence. From their respective disciplines, they’re converting industrial food waste into plastic, building electric vehicle batteries with domestic materials and helping vulnerable citizens adapt to extreme weather, to name a few. Each project is exciting in its potential and gives us hope for the future, because the No. 1 way to save the world is simply to start somewhere.
Faculty and students are studying how to produce composites for consumer or commercial uses that incorporate industrial food waste. Their research could help to reduce massive greenhouse gas emissions that result from the production of petroleum-based plastics, while also decreasing the volume of plastic pollution. In the process, they hope to divert tons of industrial food waste that would otherwise wind up in landfills and produce harmful methane gas.
Leading this environmental research trifecta is Caroline Schauer, associate dean for research and faculty affairs at the College of Engineering and a professor in the Department of Materials Science, who was appointed the inaugural Margaret C. Burns Chair in Engineering in 2021.
“By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” Schauer says. “That’s not that far off.”
Some of Schauer’s protégés are developing polymer composites made with coffee grounds, spent grains from breweries and distilleries, and cranberry and apple pomace left over from juice-making.
Doctoral student Emma Snelling is focusing on the use of cranberry pomace and spent grains as filler material in polymers made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is synthesized from renewable sources such as corn. Snelling is studying the pomace and spent grain’s potential to strengthen or otherwise enhance PLA’s mechanical properties. This is important, Snelling notes, since recycling plastic diminishes its strength.
“BY 2050, THERE WILL BE MORE PLASTIC IN THE OCEAN THAN FISH.” — Caroline Schauer
Should cranberry pomace prove to be an effective filler for biopolymers like PLA, it could create a durable material that could be repurposed repeatedly.
It would also solve the dilemma of how to dispose of cranberry pomace, which is a problem unique to the United States, Schauer says, because Americans alone have a taste for the sour fruit. Because cranberry growers have, in the past, discarded about one fourth of their annual harvest to sustain market prices, she adds, “we have all of this waste that really doesn’t have a good home.”
Cranberry pomace is a waste byproduct that could be used to make polymer composites capable of being recycled repeatedly.
In addition to processing polymers that are environmentally friendly, the lab is also focused on their end-of-life repercussions.
Where Snelling’s research could give birth to hardy new composites, doctoral student Emily Herbert is studying their equally impactful demise — and their potentially beneficial legacy.
Herbert’s research examines what happens when bacteria feed on spent grains and coffee grounds that have been incorporated into PLA and polycaprolactone (PCL), a biodegradable polyester. Using reactor vessels that contain either seawater or soil, Herbert is watching how effectively bacteria are able to break down the novel polymers. She’s also analyzing the spoils.
“Any kind of chemical breakdown is a win, honestly,” Herbert explains. “It really depends on how the bacteria behave and how they break foods down. What those byproducts are will determine how they could be useful.”
Polymers may not reliably break down into Earth-friendly components without some kind of controlled intervention, Herbert says, but ideally, “you could throw this thing into the garden or the ocean.”
Because bacteria have demonstrated a keen appetite for spent grain, composites that contain it would degrade quickly, Schauer says.
“That could be good, if it’s a food liner that you use once and then throw away,” Schauer says.
While scientists around the globe are devising strategies for improving polymers, Schauer’s lab has the capacity to prototype the materials as consumer goods.
“Great, you can make a polymer, but how does it become a computer or a cup?” she asks. “And that’s where we come in. A big focus is on how to produce these things. That’s really the next step.”
In three years’ time, Schauer estimates, composites being tested and produced in her lab could be ready to attract the interest of commercial producers. From there, it could be another year or two before consumers will find such items on store shelves.
In the meantime, the “Recycling of Materials” course Schauer teaches each spring is among just nine offered in the country, according to a 2021 article in Recycling that examined 105 universities with environmental engineering or polymer science programs.
“Drexel is at the forefront, not just in research but also in pedagogy,” Schauer says. — Sarah Greenblatt
2. Find Good (Re)Uses for Bad Things
Styrofoam is among the planet’s most problematic products. It’s neither biodegradable nor recyclable, and when exposed to sunlight or burned, it releases toxic contaminants into the air and water. It is estimated to make up some 30 percent of landfill waste and has a lifespan of hundreds of years.
So anything that can give Styrofoam a second life as a nontoxic, biodegradable force for good in the world is a win.
College of Engineering Assistant Professor Yaghoob Amir Farnam has spent a good part of his research career seeking ways to make concrete in structures and roadways more durable, often with a sustainability twist.
One of his inventions is a new process that can convert ash waste from coal-fired power plants into a versatile new construction material, called SPoRA. The affordable, customizable aggregate can be mixed with concrete to give it properties desired by the builder, at a lower cost than alternatives, while diverting waste from landfills.
More recently, he has turned his attention to roads and highways in cold climates, and how to protect them from damage caused by the freeze-thaw cycle and road salt.
“So many bridges and roads are made of concrete, which leads to potholes, cracks, corrosion,” says Farnam. “In Pennsylvania we use a lot of salt, we have rain and snow. One of the things to do to improve the durability of concrete is protect it, to put a layer on top so water and corrosive chemicals can’t get into the concrete.”
Blending soybean oil with Styrofoam produces a nontoxic, biodegradeable sealant that extends the life of paved roads.
The solution he’s working on is a road spray made from a cocktail of soybean oil and Styrofoam.
With his sponsor, the Indiana Soybean Producers Alliance, Farnam tested a compound, soy methyl ester-polystyrene (SME-PS), as a concrete protectant.
Farnam says the spray already is being used on roadways in the Midwest. His testing determined that it would also work in the Northeast, where rapid temperature changes and humidity, coupled with heavy salt use, take a toll on concrete.
“We understand the mechanism behind this behavior, and it shows better results,” he says. “Sealants have been around for decades, but SME-PS is a bio-based protectant that not only improves the durability by physically sealing the surface, but also by blocking concrete surface pores through beneficial non-destructive chemical interactions, which is why it is better.”
While the protective spray doesn’t eliminate the need for road salt, which is itself damaging to the environment, the nontoxic and biodegradable SME-PS mix could mean less is needed. And it could eliminate potentially hazardous cracks and potholes, Farnam says, which would save states money.
Soybean oil and Styrofoam work well together, Farnam says. The soybean oil is liquidy; the Styrofoam makes it more viscous, he explains.
“Like water plus honey,” he says. “It gets into the porous structure of concrete, and it stays there.”
Farnam says his road treatment mix may not solve the entire Styrofoam waste problem — after all, the mix is just 3 percent Styrofoam. “But it could be part of the solution,” he says.
Farnam plans to encourage state transportation departments to implement the technique, starting with Pennsylvania, which has almost 252,000 miles of roads — making it one of the most highly paved in the country.
“Our results are very promising,” he says. “Imagine if it was applied to all roads in Pennsylvania? It could add up to something huge.” — Amy Worden
3. Build an Eco-Friendly Battery
Global electric vehicle sales more than doubled in 2021, and that has driven surging demand for battery cathode materials like nickel, manganese and cobalt extracted from countries with poor environmental and human rights records like Congo and China.
For years, engineers have dreamed of using sulfur instead to power batteries for cars, computers and phones. Sulfur exists in vast quantities in the United States because it is a waste product of petroleum production. It promises to extend battery capacity three-fold, while alleviating both supply-chain constraints and sustainability worries.
By stabilizing a rare chemical phase of sulfur, Drexel researchers found a way to dramatically extend the life of Li-ion batteries.
Until now, however, sulfur has proven to be incompatible with electrolytes in Li-ion batteries.
But recently a team in Drexel’s College of Engineering discovered a way to stabilize a rare chemical phase of sulfur that can function with carbonate electrolyte — the energy-transport liquid used in existing Li-ion batteries. Their discovery finally puts the sought-after sulphur technology within commercial reach.
“Having a cathode that works with the carbonate electrolyte that [Li-ion batteries] already use is the path of least resistance for commercial manufacturers,” says Vibha Kalra, the George B. Francis Chair professor in the College’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who led the breakthrough study published in the journal, Communications Chemistry. “So rather than pushing for the industry adoption of a new electrolyte, our goal was to make a cathode that could work in the pre-existing Li-ion electrolyte system.”
And if that doesn’t rev motors, the team recently completed a year-long test of their sulfur cathode and saw no degradation in the stability or performance of the battery over 4,000 charges — equivalent to 10 years of use. — Britt Faulstick and Adam Stone
4. Help Urban Dwellers Adapt to Heat and Floods
Civil and environmental engineering Professor Franco Montalto and his students devise powerful tools to help residents of local neighborhoods cope with scorching heat and flood waters.
His students are working on three projects — in Hunting Park and Eastwick sections of Philadelphia and in Camden in New Jersey — that could help local partners apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and grants to address extreme heat and rising water in vulnerable neighborhoods.
In Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood, Montalto’s research team is developing cooling strategies urgently needed due to that community’s sparse tree canopy, abundant pavement and black tar roofs and general lack of air conditioning. The project began during the first summer of COVID, when public cooling places like libraries, senior centers and pools were closing.
Montalto’s research team, working in conjunction with the community group Esperanza, devised a plan to install 130 benches with attached planters and umbrellas, providing shade along several streets. They also distributed sprinklers so residents could cool the pavement during the day, reducing the heat it releases at night, when the so-called “urban heat island” is at its worst.
“WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING IS THE INTEGRATION OF REAL WORLD PROBLEMS AND PARTNERS.” — Franco Montalto
The program also provided 15 jobs to local residents who were trained in carpentry and horticulture in order to build and deploy the bench planter shade structures. Others were hired by Esperanza to monitor the temperature and humidity of the neighborhood.
The project was so popular, Esperanza kept getting phone calls from people wanting bench planters on their own blocks, Montalto says. Inspired by the program, shade-hungry residents also started requesting more street trees from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, Montalto adds.
Montalto and Esperanza have received a third round of funding from the William Penn Foundation to cool three more blocks in Hunting Park and also to extend the project into three other heat-vulnerable neighborhoods.
“Installing 30 umbrellas up and down one block doesn’t measurably change air temperature in the community, but it does provide localized relief from the sun’s radiation,” Montalto says. “Now, you can actually go outside on a hot day and experience some air movement while you sit under an umbrella. And you get other benefits, like interacting with your neighbors.”
The project has a social justice component, too. A study by researchers at the Dornsife School of Public Health shows that the heat vulnerability in Philadelphia neighborhoods dominated by Black and low-income residents is likely a legacy of redlining by banks. The study — led by Leah H. Schinasi, Chahita Kanungo, Sharrelle Barber, Loni Tabb and Irene Headen and published in early 2022 by the Journal of Urban Health — links a history of institutional racism within the housing market to present-day disparities in heat vulnerability in numerous city neighborhoods.
Another climate impact is worsening floods. In the Eastwick section of Philadelphia, residents have experienced excessive flooding for decades, with little progress made on a solution. Montalto’s students are developing predictive modeling tools that planners can use to assess whether flooding in the community can be reduced by building a levee, trapping stormwater higher up in the watershed or relocating residents of the most flood-prone areas to city-owned land on a higher elevation through a land swap similar to one in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Other students in Montalto’s hydrologic and hydraulic modeling class have simulated the flow of wastewater and stormwater through the Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, where sewers regularly overflow into the Delaware River. The team is exploring whether sewer overflows and flooding can be reduced by diverting flows from Pennsauken, a municipality to the North, away from Cramer Hill’s sewer pipes.
Graduate student Brandon Hensyl worked on the Cramer Hill project with Montalto and almost got stuck there during Hurricane Ida in 2021. The experience brought the issue home for him, as did a resident’s comment at a community meeting.
“Someone said that ‘10 years ago, if they asked what the major problem was in Camden, they would have said crime; if they asked now, people agreed it would be flooding,’” Hensyl recalls.
The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority asked Montalto’s students to present their data to city officials, and they are using it to seek FEMA support for restructuring their sewer system.
“What’s unique about what we’re doing is the integration of real-world problems and partners into research, teaching and mentorship,” Montalto says. “What I’m hearing from students is that they’re worried about climate change. They don’t want to wait until they graduate to get involved.”
Montalto, who runs Drexel’s Sustainable Water Resource Engineering Lab, was instrumental in launching the groundbreaking Environmental Collaboratory in 2021 that unites Drexel, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and marginalized communities in collaborative sustainability efforts. — Caren Chesler
5. Cut Through Climate Apathy
A new class at Drexel is tackling the very real dilemma of climate apathy head-on by asking students to consider how different approaches to film and video influence viewers — and to put theory to practice in a public film festival of their own.
The class, “Climate Films & Advocacy,” was co-taught last fall for the first time by Ben Kalina, an assistant professor of film and television in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design; and Elizabeth Watson, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
“The goal was to give students a sense of agency in figuring out how to address climate change through communication,” says Kalina, who is also an award-winning documentary producer and director.
Kalina and Watson structured the class around weekly film screenings, which culminated in panel discussions involving filmmakers, scientists, practitioners and others that delved into the topics addressed in the films. These conversations were moderated by small groups of the students themselves. Kalina says it was important to include a variety of genres and approaches among the films shown, so students could reflect on the impact of, for example, hopeful films versus darker ones, or character-driven films versus those that are more factually focused.
At the end of the term, students collaboratively organized “Cinema for the Climate,” a public film festival that ran in December 2021.
“Students signed up for different roles to organize the festival, and that really allowed different entry points in the idea that to get involved in climate justice activism, you can ask, ‘How do my talents intersect with this problem?’” Watson says. “We had people who made artwork, we had writers, people who ran the technical side — there were a lot of different ways to be involved, which I think is true for any event or organization.”
At the festival, students distributed pre-film and post-film surveys, to assess how effective the films were in shifting people’s attitudes, however slightly.
One student, Lauren Jackson, says that the class inspired her to pursue a career in environmental documentary filmmaking. The class also convinced her that the most effective way to communicate about climate change is by connecting to our universal humanity, rather than sticking to scientific facts or political ideology, she says.
“It is generally much more effective to be practical, encouraging and solution-oriented, as opposed to pessimistic or worst-case scenario oriented, which may overwhelm people and scare them away,” she says. — Katie Gilbert
6. Get Smart About Using Data (and Bees Help, too)
It used to be that “sustainable building” just meant LEED certification, but today it’s much more. Kaya M. Gentile (BS environmental engineering ’20) is using data, artificial intelligence and even honeybee ambassadors to make a portfolio of over four million square feet of real estate more environmentally friendly.
“We are operating buildings with multimillion-dollar budgets for cooling in the summer and multimillion-dollar budgets for water usage, so there is a big opportunity here to optimize the use of resources,” says Gentile, a sustainability analyst with global real estate investment and facilities management company Hines, in New York City.
Take trash, for example. It’s either going to a landfill, a recycling plant, or a composting operation. A building manager can help to optimize those outcomes and decrease the landfill proportion.
“We have a major endeavor to wrap our hands around the data,” she says. “In New York City, you have a waste management broker, you have the trash haulers, and you get some data from each of them — but it typically comes six to eight weeks later, and it doesn’t show you the full story,” she says.
To get better insights, she’s leading an effort on behalf of a Hines client to track trash from the source of the waste all the way to the landfill. “One of our major projects is to roll out sensors within individual trash cans, in individual dumpsters — actual camera sensors that are run with artificial intelligence and report to a dashboard,” she says.
Data reveals what’s being picked up and when, among other things. That makes it possible to optimize the routes of trash trucks, so they aren’t picking up empty cans, thus cutting down on harmful emissions. If occupants are contaminating the recycling with trash, or if food waste isn’t being composted, building managers can adjust.
Bees help, too. As part of her efforts, Gentile has put beehives atop numerous office buildings, both to boost the pollinator population and to get people talking about sustainability.
“This is one of the most engaging ways to bring out the idea that we all live in an ecosystem, even within major metropolitan areas,” Gentile says. “Where does your food come from? What plants grow natively? The bees give us a way to engage people on all sorts of sustainability topics.” — Adam Stone
7. Design Buildings to Use Less Energy
Buildings are power hogs, consuming 40 percent of the world’s energy. That’s especially true of health care and academic research buildings, which typically consume three times more.
Which means Ballinger Associate Principal Mike Radio (BS mechanical engineering ’07) had his work cut out for him when he took the lead engineer role for the new 450,000-square-foot Drexel University Health Sciences building being developed by Drexel’s uCity Square partner Wexford Science & Technology.
Once complete, the tower at 36th and Market streets will become home to the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the administrative units of the College of Medicine.
“Many of these buildings are occupied 24 hours a day,” Radio says. That means round-the-clock heating and cooling, plus energy-intensive equipment. At the same time, it is critical to maintain healthy indoor environments with clean outdoor air. Conventional methods for conditioning air can increase energy demands even further.
Radio is leveraging state-of-the-art tools and strategies to reduce the carbon footprint. This means finding creative ways to deal with “waste heat” — all the heat generated by human activity, equipment, lighting and so on. Rather than blow it out into the atmosphere, he’s instead looking to use that heat to pre-warm outdoor air coming into the building.
In addition, Radio is examining how the heating and cooling systems interact with the building’s envelope, insulation and lighting systems. It’s a multi-team, multi-disciplinary approach to sustainability. “Decisions have to be understood by the developers, the contractors, the design architects,” he says.
The work combines his interests in design, architecture and engineering. As a Drexel student, he did a co-op in the water industry and another in light-rail public transportation, but it was a stint in the building industry that pulled it all together for him.
“I saw a way to blend all of my passions and also have an impact on society,” he says. “In my role, I can influence the design of buildings and drive sustainability.”
His efforts are projected to reduce the building’s energy usage by 40 percent and its fossil fuel emissions by over 60 percent, compared with a typical code-compliant building.
“It’s not acceptable to just design a code-compliant building…it’s paramount that we reduce the carbon footprint,” says Radio. — Adam Stone
The inventor of the ubiquitous K-Cup coffee pods, John Sylvan, doesn’t have a Keurig machine himself and has said that he regrets inventing the notoriously wasteful single-use coffees.
Maybe, if he had had a different kind of design education, he would have placed more importance on the waste-stream impact of his idea from the beginning.
That notion — that designers should think before they produce — energizes Raja Schaar and Chris Baeza, both program leaders and faculty members in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
They’ve incorporated a revolutionary ethic into their design courses at Drexel, in which they ask students to pause and reflect about the overall ethical implications of what they bring into the world.
“The ultimate goal is to get students to think more critically about their work,” says Schaar, who is program director and assistant professor of product design.
What students really crave is “applied ethics,” which means thinking about “‘Who do I become?’ or what it means to do no harm,” says Baeza, who is the design and merchandising program director and assistant teaching professor.
Through the ”Cli-Fi Futures” world-building game, students respond to climate doomsday scenarios, imagining the enduring environmental impact of their decisions.
In 2020, the two developed a course centered on embedding ethics in designing for climate change. For the course, they created a speculative world-building game inspired by the game “Afro-Rithms from the Future,” by Lonny Avi Brooks and Eli Kosminsky. Their game, “Cli-Fi Futures,” is based on themes of apocalyptic climate fiction (“cli-fi”) and Afrofuturism — a cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology to reimagine history and envision a more hopeful future.
“Cli-Fi Futures” uses cautionary tales, doomsday scenarios and real and imagined climate disasters to help designers forecast the impact of their decisions.
“Just because we can design things, ought we?” asks Schaar. “Does this design need to exist in the world? The game connects these ideas.”
“Cli-Fi Futures” is made up of “tension” cards (migration/racial equity/ecotopia) that asks participants to set priorities in designing a fictional world for better or worse, by mixing “inspiration” cards (food systems/sustainable housing/education) and “objects” (shoes/drones/trash cans) to factor in the role of design.
The two have presented their game at conferences and workshops around the country to high school students, academics, industry and even a design thinking group within the Department of Defense.
Both previously worked in industries known for placing the highest value on generating new and more things, regardless of the societal consequences.
Baeza and Schaar both arrived at Drexel in 2016; Baeza from Immaculata University and a 25-year career in the fashion industry and Schaar from Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech. The two immediately bonded over the notion that something vital was missing from the design curriculum.
Baeza was moved by the notion that it was time to break free of the philosophy of “design for design’s sake.”
In one classroom scenario, students were asked to imagine themselves as the inventors of plastics, once seen as life-changing and now recognized as having a catastrophic impact on the environment.
“Given what we know today, might they have made different decisions? Can we be more sensitive, predictive way further out?” Baeza asks.
Or consider one-for-one fashion brands, where one item is donated for every item purchased, she says. They have a social mission to provide products for marginalized groups, yet many products are made of material that doesn’t degrade, or that can’t be reused or upcycled.
“We have the ability to predict, but lack the ability to imagine the future,” Schaar observes.
“Could we build it better? How can we divert product from the landfill?,” asks Baeza.
This summer, Schaar and Baeza are working on a grant they received to collaborate with colleagues Justin Henriques, Carissa Henriques and Kyle Gipson at James Madison University on empowering students to lead climate-resilient change. The goal, they say, is to develop a suite of open-source tools that build on speculative and sustainable design to inspire students to think more critically about their responsibility as designers to act as stewards of the planet. — Amy Worden
9. Leave No Community Behind
Being green is relatively simple when you have the luxury of options. But many of the world’s citizens live in challenging corners of the world — like the residents of Tyonek, Alaska.
Tyonek is a tiny, remote village of Athabaskan-speaking Native Alaskans, located 40 miles from Anchorage and accessible only by boat. Residents there are fed up with their outdated, unreliable — and very costly — energy system.
They want affordable, renewable energy instead — and through a unique nonprofit called Community and College Partners Program (C2P2), students in a Drexel senior capstone class are working to make Tyonek’s dream a reality.
The seniors and their faculty advisor Mira Olson, an associate professor in the College of Engineering and a co-founder of Drexel’s Peace Engineering program, learned about Tyonek from a contact of Olson’s at C2P2.
The nonprofit connects universities — and in some cases, funding — to underserved communities in need of pro bono technical work, with a mission of honoring communities’ self-identified needs.
“The community repeatedly expressed interest in developing a renewable energy source to decrease its unaffordable energy costs,” says Kathryn Ryan, who’s earning her BS in actuarial science through Drexel’s custom-design major. “That means we need to design a whole new energy system and understand the upfront costs.”
Tyonek’s boat-only location increases the cost and complexity of some options, such as wind turbines, which are preferred by the community but would be expensive to transport. So the five students are also exploring solar power, and they’ve prepared energy costs and savings estimates for the community to evaluate. Next year’s class of seniors will take up the project and see it through in consultation with residents.
“Research and innovation should be directed at what society needs, and who are we to say what an individual community needs?” Olson says. “If we want to build something that’s useful for people, it should be co-developed with people who will be using it.” — Katie Gilbert
10. Ban Single-Use Plastics
Since the 1970s, the volume of plastics in our garbage has jumped from 2 percent to 13 percent, and almost none of that can be recycled, warns College of Arts and Sciences Professor Diane Sicotte.
An environmental sociologist who studies the natural gas and petroleum industries, Sicotte has turned her scholarship toward illuminating the grave environmental risk posed by single-use plastics and advocating for their outlaw.
“Plastic manufacturers put a recycling arrow on the bottom of the container,” Sicotte says. “So of course, people think it’s recyclable. But the problem is, they are made out of so many different components and formulas. That’s why we can’t talk about ‘plastic;’ we have to talk about ‘plastics.’”
“PLASTIC GETS DISPOSED OF, USUALLY, IN POOR COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.” — Diane Sicotte
Those impurities mean that when it’s time to recycle plastics into other goods, many can only be downcycled into something less valuable (like a plastic container that’s used for a toothbrush handle). So unlike recycled glass, paper and metal, there isn’t much of a market for recycled plastics.
The result is that at least 50 percent of what we say is recycled in the United States is actually discarded or shipped overseas. Plastics wind up in our waterways, in our seafood, and ultimately, in our bodies.
“Plastics are made from petrochemical substances like ethane,” Sicotte says. “In Louisiana and Texas, where most of the plastics are made in this country, people are breathing toxic and carcinogenic substances. And when you dispose of plastic in the United States, it gets disposed of, usually, in poor communities of color.”
“All of this stuff is not only producing harm for the earth and animals and people, but also producing injustice,” Sicotte says.
Municipal and statewide bans on plastic shopping bags are growing coast to coast, with Philadelphia’s going into effect just this year. But Sicotte says it’s a mistake to think that this problem can be solved on the local level.
Instead, she recommends a mix of laws and policy incentives such as those adopted in European countries that have helped reduce waste at the source, increased recycling rates and shifted the costs associated with waste disposal from the public to plastics producers and retailers using plastic packaging. Her scholarship also advocates for passage of federal legislation banning the sale of the most ubiquitous single-use plastic items.
Knowing that we can’t recycle our way out of the problem, Sicotte argues, we must reduce the volume we produce. — Mike Unger
11. Empower the Change Agents
Since the early 2000s, numerous U.S. cities have published plans aimed at making their municipalities more sustainable and climate resilient. But city plans aren’t usually the key to advancing sustainability, according to Alexis Schulman, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who has been studying the specific factors that put local governments on a path to success.
While citywide plans can affect improvements at the margins, systemic change actually happens through decisions that are much less visible, often made in policy silos and pushed forward by influential individuals and organizations during periods of upheaval, she says.
“What you need are these windows of opportunity precipitated by crises, where change agents can say, ‘Hey there’s a problem here. We all see that. I have the solution,’” she says.
Schulman observed such a scenario at the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) in the late ’90s. At the time, the utility was under pressure by the state environmental agency to develop a plan to manage its sewage overflows in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Two-thirds of Philadelphia relies on a combined sewer system that collects stormwater and sewage in a single pipe. During rainstorms, this wastewater exceeds the capacity of the sewer system or the treatment plant, and billions of gallons of diluted raw sewage is dumped into local streams and rivers every year.
Typically, a city deals with this problem by constructing an underground water storage tunnel — which would have cost Philadelphia an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion.
But a middle manager named Howard Neukrug saw a better way, Schulman says.
“He told his team to start exploring other options from the world of stormwater control — controlling stormwater as it falls through infiltration practices and keeping it out of the sewer system entirely,” she says.
Neukrug had the blessings of the Water Commissioner and the advantage of working in a city where the water utility was a single integrated authority overseeing all sewage, drinking water and stormwater runoff — a rarity among big cities.
Nonetheless, he faced significant internal opposition from water engineers who were used to doing things the “old way”— with tunnels and pipes. He was able to leverage support for his plan from important external actors, including historically adversarial environmental nonprofits and EPA policymakers, who were increasingly supportive of city efforts to use greenscaping practices to control sewage overflows.
After nearly two decades of planning and persuasion, in 2011 Philadelphia’s 25-year plan called Green City Clean Waters was approved — the same year that Neukrug, now recognized as a national authority in the water industry, was named Philadelphia’s Water Commissioner. One decade later, the Philadelphia Water Department is meeting its benchmarks and has installed over 800 projects citywide.
Challenges remain, Schulman says, but the plan has put Philadelphia at the vanguard of investments in green infrastructure.
“It didn’t happen because everyone in the water department was like, ‘We want to be sustainable, this is the right thing to do, or because of Philadelphia’s sustainability plan,’” says Schulman. “It happened because of a quirk of history that integrated the utility, it happened because of good timing, and it happened especially because of this internal champion who seized this opportunity to make change.” — Mike Unger
12. Urban Indoor ‘Food Machines’
Imagine the carbon savings if cities could grow their own fruit and vegetables year-round in specially built indoor farms downtown, rather than have to ship their food from other parts of the country.
“Most of us in Philadelphia get our produce from California. It’s grown and harvested, and then it gets put in a truck and shipped over here. That uses up a lot of gasoline and produces a lot of carbon emissions,” says Eugenia Victoria Ellis, a professor emerita with a joint appointment in the Antoinette Westphal College of Arts & Design and in the College of Engineering.
Working with Philadelphia inventor Jack Griffin of The Farm Works, Ellis is developing an indoor hydroponics solution that can bring fresh food much closer to home.
Early attempts at indoor agriculture used the same technology paradigm as ordinary buildings. They were loosely based on greenhouses which are porous, open systems susceptible to moisture migration, mold and pathogens. Griffin is instead engineering his indoor agriculture system, called V-LIFE (value-added localized integrated farming enterprise), not as a building, but as a machine for growing food.
Ellis’ interest in hydroponics grew out of her work as director of Drexel’s dLUX Light Lab, where interdisciplinary researchers investigate light in the built environment. She started out investigating the impact of natural daylight on circadian rhythms and human health, which steered her toward urban agriculture and community gardens and, with Griffin, the idea of indoor agriculture for the city.
Sounds easy: You put in boxes, water, lighting, and you’ve got an indoor farm. In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
“Strip mall buildings aren’t suitable for this,” she explains. “These spaces are conditioned for people, whereas you need a grow space to be 75 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Then when it is time to harvest the produce, it needs to be in a cold room at 38 degrees,” she says. “So, it’s kind of like moving from a tropical jungle to the Arctic north all within one building.”
She talked to a New York medical-marijuana grower who didn’t take all that into account, and whose building subsequently rusted out within a year. “That’s when the alarm went off in my head that there were issues surrounding retrofitting a characteristic strip mall space for indoor agriculture,” Ellis says.
Growing food indoors brings healthy fruits and vegetables closer to home for city residents, reducing the carbon costs of transporting food long distances.
Around that time, a colleague came to the fore with a key resource.
Dean of Engineering Sharon Walker put her in touch with Ken Fulmer, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Urban Engineers, a multidisciplinary planning, design, environmental and construction services consulting firm.
Together, they plan on tackling the problem to come up with a design that meets this need.
“The secret is in the building envelope, everything that separates the inside of the building from the outside of the building. It’s the structure, it’s the material of the inside wall, the outside wall and the insulation,” she says. “We’ll be working with Urban Engineers to design the building envelope so that water will not condense on the structure and rust out the building.”
Through the dLUX Light Lab, Ellis was also able to support one STAR scholar and two co-op students during the pandemic to develop a tunable LED lighting system for agriculture. “The colors are mixed to optimize the growth and the flavor of the plants,” she says. “The lights also move up as the plant grows, so the distance from the light to the plant remains the same throughout the growing process.”
She is also hoping to collaborate with engineering colleagues to develop strategies to use organic waste — such as root balls harvested from millions of plants — to power the building.
“The root balls ferment and create gas, and you can capture the gas and use it to make electricity,” Ellis suggests.
At 40,000 square feet — nearly an acre — the building she envisions would also have ample rooftop space for solar panels.
“Essentially, this project shows the potential of being its own bio-loop that uses waste residue as a resource for energy and solar panels to supplement the energy being used by the building to grow food,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to design a building that is as carbon neutral as possible for this energy-intensive industry.” — Adam Stone
13. Give Food A Redux
Culinary arts and science professor Jonathan Deutsch of the College of Nursing and Health Professions is helping to forge an entire industry by turning food waste into treasure.
As director of Drexel’s Food Lab, Deutsch has long been interested in combining food science and culinary arts to make our food systems more sustainable. He played a critical role in launching the Upcycled Food Association, a group of manufacturers focused on finding wholesome uses and a market for food parts that would otherwise be discarded into compost or landfills. (Using the shorn-off stems and scraps of mushrooms as a flavor and texture additive in a half-plant, half-beef burger, for example.)
The association started with nine members but has grown to more than 165 companies.
“We’re now working together globally on this issue (with other universities), but I would say we were the first and are probably the leader on developing upcycled products and measuring consumer acceptance,” Deutsch says.
Appealing to consumers is vital. To that end, the association came up with a certification process for products that are upcycled, not unlike the approvals for organically grown foods, so consumers can look for the “UPcycled” label.
Upcycling isn’t just a noble cause but an important one. Some 33–40 percent of food is wasted, representing the largest source of preventable greenhouse gas emissions. Upcyclers reduce that waste by creating new recipes or food products out of leftovers or cosmetically flawed foods. Del Monte, for instance, sells two types of certified canned green beans that are made from 100 percent upcycled and sustainably grown vegetables. Matriark Foods sells a broth made from fresh-cut vegetable remnants.
And Renewal Mill uses the spent soybeans and oatmeal left behind after oat and soy milk are made and turns them into high protein flours that can be used for baking.
“Waste is inevitable; but we shouldn’t have such huge amounts of it,” Deutsch says.
Drexel isn’t only a leader in the movement; the University created one of the newest entrants to the market when Food Lab alumnae Sheetal Bahirat and Zuri Masud developed a beverage from avocado seeds. Their product, Reveal Avocado Seed Brew, saved over 5,000 pounds of avocado pits from landfills in 2020.
“It tastes and looks like iced tea,” Deutsch says. “They essentially created a new ingredient for the food industry that previously had only been a waste ingredient.”
Marketers used to believe that if consumers knew they were eating foods that had been deemed “waste” they’d view it negatively or want some kind of discount, says Deutsch.
Drexel’s research found, to the contrary, that consumers feel good about foods with an environmental benefit, and if products are marketed well and explained well, consumers will actually pay a premium, Deutsch says.
“If you think about it, the hot dog and sausage and those kinds of foods were very much a response to using as much of the product as you can,” Deutsch adds. “What’s changed, and what’s new and exciting, is the marketing of new products as ‘upcycled.’” — Caren Chesler
Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
Thirteen ideas for coping with a changing planet.
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