Fresh Press: A Problem Free Paper Project
Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with Eric Benson, who is one of the founders of the incredible project that is Fresh Press here at UIUC. If you dont already know, Fresh Press is an agri-fiber paper-making lab on the Illinois campus that explores how a collaboration of farmers, artists, designers, and academics can revitalize a manufacturing industry in the Midwest. They collaborate with the Sustainable Student Farm (SSF) and the Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP) site, and aim to grow student opportunities through individual and collaborative research and public engagement efforts.
This idea for the project came to life in 2012 after it received funding from the SSC. Professors Steve Kostell and Eric Benson came up with the idea after spending some time wondering if paper made from agricultural residue or “waste” could help make the paper industry sustainable. They thought that by switching the supply chain from the forest to the farm, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore wildlife, and help American farmers. Turns out, they were right.
Since then, the project has grown exponentially. They now have a lab located in research park where they make paper from a variety of different wastes from the farm harvest, like corn and soy stalks, tomato or eggplant vines and native prairie grasses. What I found most incredible about this project is their dedication to sustainability in every possible way. They are not only conscious about their environmental impact in the creation of the paper itself, but also in every other step of the process as well. From the Sustainable Student Farm to Fresh Press to the South Quad, their paper only travels a total of 4.4 miles emitting about 4 lbs of greenhouse gases (if we drive!). Compared that to tree-fiber paper which has to travel around 2.700 miles from the Boreal Forests in British Columbia Canada to paper mills in Wisconsin and finally here to campus, you save 2353 lbs of greenhouse gases by transportation from entering our atmosphere.
Additionally, if one factors in manufacturing, their paper continues to prevent even more greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the paper and notebooks are handmade by a small group of dedicated and talented students who believe in hard work, beautiful paper, and and a better future through economic and environmental sustainability. They are undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Illinois who not only hand pull sheets of corn, soy, or prairie grass paper, but also plant, weed, and harvest them on the sustainable student farm.
In an effort to get a sense of what the project is like from an inside perspective, I consulted a student who works in the lab. When asked why she became interested in Fresh Press, student Cynthia Liu responded:
“Fresh press gave me an opportunity to actually step into the field of sustainability which is something I care about a lot. When I saw the pictures of trash islands, and how seabird/fish’s stomach are stuffed with plastic debris, and sea turtle’s nostril has plastic straw, which made me feel so bad. And I become more aware of how serious the impacts of human action is making on animals. We seem to take everything for granted: styrofoam cups/containers in restaurants, papers, plastic bags, without thinking about the consequences before making the choice to use them. In fresh press we tried to use organic materials, even for packaging, and i just feel amazed by how pretty the end product turned out to be. The papers are made out of recycled student artworks, which were supposed to be in trash by now if we didn’t reuse it. It’s not only bringing trash back to life, but also reducing landfill pollution.”
A Brief History of the Largest Student Fee Funded Green Pool in the US
The Student Sustainability Committee first became a reality back in 2002 after a passionate group of UIUC students gathered together in an effort to create a more sustainable campus. The initial main goal was to create an initiative to advance alternative energy projects on campus, but it later developed into something much greater. The students ultimately decided that the best way to accomplish this goal was to initiate a student fee and form a committee to increase environmental stewardship, inspire change, and impact students. They sought to gain as much student involvement as possible and ultimately give students a voice when it came to energy issues on campus.
Fifteen years and over one hundred funded projects later, a lot has happened within the committee. In 2003 a $2 per semester non-refundable student fee for Cleaner Energy Technologies (CETF) was approved by a student referendum. The intent of CETF is to provide renewable energy as a portion of the campus energy portfolio and reduce campus energy consumption.
A few years later in 2010, students passed a referendum that raised the refundable Sustainable Campus Environment Fee from $5 to $14. The measure passed by 77% approval and established University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign as having the largest sustainability funding pool of its kind in the United States!
Today the Cleaner Energy Technologies fee remains at $2.00 and the Sustainable Campus Environment fee is $12.06. Each year, these two fees allow SSC to allocate just under $1.1 million to projects that promote the University’s goals laid out in the Illinois Climate Action Plan and directly impact University of Illinois students through improved infrastructure, services, and educational events.
Collectively, the committee is comprised of twelve students who are dedicated to improving the sustainability on campus. With the help of ten faculty and staff that serve as member-advisors, they meet to review and vote on what projects receive funding and check in on those projects that have already received funding. Using the two student fees, they review submitted projects and distribute funding to projects that we deem to be most beneficial to the University of Illinois. Over 100 projects have been funded through the committee since its beginning.
In short, our mission to this day is as follows: “The Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) is a student-led organization charged with the distribution of two student fees – the Sustainable Campus Environment Fee and the Cleaner Energy Technologies Fee. With the ultimate goal of making the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a leader in campus sustainability, SSC reviews, recommends, and funds projects that increase environmental stewardship, inspire change, and impact students.”
Don’t Ditch Diesel Yet
When most people think about clean energy, many just think wind and solar. However, the truth is that with the rapid increase in technology and innovation within the last few decades, the possibilities for renewable energy have increased exponentially. Biodiesel, for instance, is one that many people are not familiar with but should be because it is leading the way in clean fuel production. Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning diesel replacement that can be made from a diverse mix of feedstocks including recycled cooking oil, soybean oil, and animal fats.
UIUC is participating in the development and expansion of biodiesel in many ways. On campus, there is a registered student organization dedicated to it called The Illinois Biodiesel Initiative (IBI). Their primary mission is to produce biodiesel and soap from waste vegetable oil (WVO) collected from campus dining halls in an effort to reduce emissions and promote sustainability on campus. The Student Sustainability Committee initially voted to fund the Illinois Biodiesel Initiative during its 2012-13 funding cycle; however, due IBI being forced out of their old site at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, SSC funding was put on hold. While they wait for their permanent site in the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory, IBI is currently running scaled-down production in a space in Roger Adams Laboratory.
In addition to the club, the team working on this project found that an education component would be very beneficial to spreading their overarching goals of sustainability across the campus. Because of that, they created a class that students from all disciplines can take and piloted it this semester. The objective of the class competent is to educate students on the project and hopefully increase student and campus involvement in sustainability. I had the opportunity to check out the class earlier this week. I got to see the entire progress that the oil goes through first hand, and it was incredible. The SSC plans to follow up again after they are moved into their permanent location so stay tuned for further progress and innovation updates.
In the meantime, aside from the class, there are several other opportunities to get involved with the initiative and in the club. Students can join any of the four subgroups which include production/testing, Soap (production or research), Finance, and Special Projects. They are always looking for new members from all grade levels.
Did you know Styrofoam can be recycled?
I met with Marco Tijoe, a biological physics major who coordinates campus Styrecycle. Styrecycle started Styrofoam recycling on UIUC’s campus for the first time after receiving SSC funding in 2014. They have emulated a very successful program that’s eco-friendly and self-sustaining. Marco showed me the collection box that contained large Styrofoam boxes, which were used as coolers to ship equipment to the life science lab. Styrecycle has established a partnership with Community Resources, Inc. (CRI) to pick up Styrofoam, transporting it to their site, and feeding the Styrofoam into a “densifier”. The densified Styrofoam is then sold to a company in Chicago. CRI gives Styrecycle a portion of the proceeds to support interns who keep the program running.
Each month Styrecycle collects 1000 pounds of Styrofoam a month, improving campus sustainability and diverting waste from the landfills. Due to the hefty amount of materials handled, Strecycle are looking for volunteers and interns for the coming semester. Students can take an one credit hour class under ENVS 491 for Spring and Summer semester. Please contact Marco at Illinois.firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in getting involved with Styrecycle. This is a great community effort to make our university greener. SSC would love to see more campus projects like Strecycle. If you have ideas, feel free to apply for SSC Spring funding.
My First Aquaponics Experience at UIUC
Justin is a sophomore student in NRES who applied for SSC funding last year to set up an aquaponics system. He and his partners ordered the aquaponics kit and set up the system in the south quad greenhouses behind ACES library. He invited me to take a tour to learn more about aquaponics.
As he opened the greenhouse’s door for me, a warm breeze gushes out. The room is set to a temperature as a warm spring day to keep the plants and fish in a controlled setting. The aquaponics system was put in a few weeks ago, and the water is still being filtered to get a livable PH level for tilapia. Justin explained to me that the main input to an aquaponics system is fish food. The fish eat the food and excrete waste. The waste contains ammonia that is harmful to fish. In aquaponics, water from the fish tank is fed to a plant grow bed where ammonia is broken down into nitrate. The nitrate is absorbed by the plants to help them grow and further clean the water. The clean water is returned to the fish tank with the oxygen the fish need. This is a natural and sustainable process that mimics the ecosystem and provides a chemical free fish product.
When the water’s PH level is right, the tilapia can come as soon as next Friday! And Justin plans to give more tours of the aquaponics system. I enjoyed learning about this alternative sustainable way of fish farming, and I was able to compare and contrast this to our modern fish farm practices. I saw how simple the process is and it is very possible for me to set up a DIY aquaponics system at home that is chemical free and ultimately free fish in the long run. I encourage everyone to go check out the aquaponics system when Justin gives tours. Please keep an eye on the SSC blog or Facebook page for the aquaponics tour schedule.
Before The Flood – Public Screening
97% of scientists agree that not only is climate change real, it is accelerated by human contribution. The Student Sustainability Committee definitely agrees with the science.
Please join SSC on Thursday the 27th at 7:00 PM in 112 Gregory Hall for a free preview screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest film, BEFORE THE FLOOD, before its national debut.
For more information, or to RSVP, please visit https://www.facebook.com/events/177947295986443/. Hope to see you there!