Category Archives: student projects

The Wharton Green Tracker: A Sustainability Impact Pilot for Wharton Students

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The Wharton Green Tracker, our impact tracking app, launched on March 19th! This is a free app available for iOS and Android devices that will connect us all digitally and reward you for doing good by the Wharton community and the world, and for making more sustainable lifestyle choices. Prizes will be offered to the highest point-earner from the prior week every Monday through April 16, as well as for highest scores at the pilot’s conclusion! Follow this link to download on iOS, and this link to download on Android – or simply search “Wharton Green Tracker,” to get started. Use community code “whartonupenn to gain access and start earning your points now!

The Wharton Green Tracker is a collaboration between the Wharton School and MilkCrate, a mission–driven tech company that empowers our clients to track and grow their impact using a platform that can be customized to engage individual behavior to reveal collective impact.  To learn more about MilkCrate, check out their website: http://mymilkcrate.com

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The Mushroom Farming Industry: Transforming Environmental Risks into Positive Environmental and Economic Outcomes

By Max Laufer
September 5th, 2017

A little known fact about Pennsylvania is that it is the single largest source of edible mushrooms in the United States.1 The vast majority of mushroom production in Pennsylvania is concentrated in the 759 square mile 1 Chester County in the southeast of the state. Chester County alone has over 60 mushroom farms 2 harvesting over 400 million pounds of mushrooms per year, nearly 50% of the entire U.S. supply.3 Mushroom production is Pennsylvania’s second largest industry in its agricultural sector 3 and shows no signs of slowing down as demand for mushrooms in the U.S. continues to increase.4

Mushroom production has substantially less negative environmental impact than other agricultural industries and, as such, receives little to no criticism from the concerned public. In Chester County, PA, however, mushroom farming happens on a larger scale than anywhere else in the country and thus its aggregate negative environmental impact is greater than one might expect. Therefore, it is important to analyze the impact that exists and devise approaches toward decreasing it. This report will first look at the practice of mushroom farming and the ways it can affect the environment. Secondly, the report will propose specific solutions for mitigating the environmental impacts, while also considering the economic demands of the agricultural industry.

Mitigating Environmental Risks: At what Economic Cost?

Typical discourse about mitigating the environmental impacts of farming centers on minimizing both economic and environmental risk. Much discussion, for instance, has taken place about the imposing of certain economic sanctions on corporations that engage in practices that result in a substantial amount of carbon emissions. These discussions occur on the basis of environmentalists’ hopes for decreasing the frequency of use of said practices. Traditional discourse about the balancing of economic and environmental success, however, is not necessarily applicable to the mushroom industry. In fact, one’s environmental concerns need not be compromised in ensuring a balance of positive environmental and economic outcomes,. What is fascinating about the mushroom farming industry is that its harmful environmental impact actually holds the potential to be transformed into both positive environmental and economic outcomes.

Environmental Risks of Mushroom Farming

Environmental concerns over mushroom farming are almost entirely centered around the refining and disposing of its by-products. This potential environmental harm manifests itself in a couple of ways. The process of growing mushrooms entails the fungal bodies converting compost into nutrients. Carbon from said compost undergoes a conversion process initiated by the mushrooms into useable carbohydrates.5 Such a process results in a by-product known as “spent compost.”5 Spent compost is not intrinsically harmful to the environment (and, in fact, can be highly useful: a concept that will be expounded upon later). There are two aspects of spent compost that have the potential to affect environmental harm, each multifaceted in and of themselves. The first concern is that mushrooms are often commercially grown in recycled organic matter containing pesticides. The problem with this is not related to the pesticides themselves, per se, but rather with the methods of disposal of spent compost containing said pesticides. Or, perhaps, the fact that it is disposed of at all. When spent compost containing pesticides is disposed of instead of being reused for other purposes (a concept that will also be explained later in greater detail), it can pose a significant environmental threat. This threat primarily manifests itself in the form of runoff.5 Runoff from disposed spent mushroom compost can contaminate local water supplies and natural, water-based ecosystems.5

Aside from the issue of pesticide pollution, spent compost also potentially harbors harmful viruses and diseases. These diseases pose risks parallel to those caused by pesticides. They have the potential to contaminate water supplies and disrupt ecosystems. The risk of spent mushroom compost containing diseases can be easily decreased through a pasteurization process.6 Pasteurizing mushroom compost also maximizes its potential for reutilization,6 which one might predict would decrease the tendency of mushroom farmers to dispose of it in the first place.

The disposal of spent mushroom compost can pose numerous environmental risks. It does not, however, have to be disposed of. In fact, it can also be reused in several ways. Spent compost has water-retaining properties as well as the potential to retain nitrate levels of its water due to the presence of high amounts of carbon.5 As such, spent compost has the potential to be highly useful as an addition to soil for commercial farming. Further, there is also promising research that shows the efficacy of spent mushroom compost for increasing the quality of turfgrass. According to a study conducted by the Department of Plant Science at Penn State, spent mushroom compost “can improve the structure of clay soils, reduce surface crusting and compaction, promote drainage, increase microbial activity, and provide nutrients to turfgrasses.”7 Spent compost also has the potential to be reused for further mushroom harvesting. According to research also done at Penn State, “phosphorous availability may be a limiting factor” in terms of the reusability of supposedly spent compost.5 Their research has shown, however, that phosphorous availability can be increased in the substrate “by controlling the ionic activity of calcium and potassium.”5 Through this process, there lies a potential for spent mushroom compost to not actually be as “spent” as previously thought in regards to its ability to be reused for its original purpose.

If spent mushroom compost is not truly spent, however, then why is it so often disposed of? The answer appears to be simpler than one might assume. There is not widespread knowledge of the potential reusability of spent compost. According to the same research implicated earlier, mushroom farmers “must try to educate not only the community but also all possible users about the value of post mushroom substrate.”5 Ultimately, the problem appears not to be that the spent compost itself lacks uses, rather that its uses are not at all adequately considered. More widespread reuse of spent compost would not only be positive for the environment by reducing rates of environmentally harmful disposal, but it could also benefit the mushroom industry in a very positive way. In addition to producing and selling mushrooms, the mushroom industry now also has a farming substrate with remarkable potential for use in various industries. Ignoring the fact that reusing the spent compost would substantially mitigate the environmental risks associated with it, spent compost also poses a fascinating economic opportunity for the mushroom industry. The mushroom industry has the potential to repurpose its by-products for commercial sale while simultaneously mitigating the environmental risks associated with said by-product’s disposal. Investing in consumer education could prove to hold substantial economic benefits for the mushroom industry and environmental benefits for Chester County and other areas where the industry flourishes.

It is apparent that spent mushroom compost can be reused for a variety of purposes. Further, however, it is also important to note that disposal is not necessarily a terrible option if creating demand for spent mushroom compost fails. In order to minimize the environmental harm of the disposal process, though, two steps would have to be taken. The first and most obvious step would be to eliminate the use of growing substrate containing pesticides. Doing this would result in a rather innocuous by-product rather than one that poses risk of runoff. In fact, spent mushroom compost itself appears to pose no environmental risk if it does not contain pesticides (and if it has undergone a process about to be elaborated on). According to research at Penn State, the spent compost simply “decomposes to an unobjectionable soil.”5

The second step that would have to be taken to reduce environmental harm resulting from spent mushroom compost disposal would be to put in place a pasteurization process. This process involves heating the substrate to a temperature high enough to eliminate harmful bacteria and diseases.6 The primary reason why the pasteurization process is not widespread despite its apparent efficacy in minimizing environmental risks is, simply put, the cost associated with it.6 The process is not legally required and thus little incentive exists for commercial mushroom farmers to implement it.

Two potential solutions to this quandary exist: the first is for environmental regulatory agencies to legally require a pasteurization process. This, however, would likely have a negative economic impact. It would increase the costs associated with mushroom farming, potentially making the endeavor less profitable and/or driving up the price of mushrooms. Given that mushroom farming plays an integral role in the economy of Chester County, such policies might appear untenable to those fiscally-minded. Another solution, and one with less potential economic impact, would be establishing tax incentives for implementing a pasteurization process. Such a tax incentive would inevitably shift some amount of a tax burden onto taxpayers or on other industries to compensate, though it would have benefits that would not exist if a legal requirement for pasteurization was put into place. It would give mushroom farmers more ownership over their process, while still increasing pasteurization rates in the industry. Increasing pasteurization rates, of course, is highly important in regards to controlling the spread of disease resulting from disposal of spent compost. While it is unclear exactly what the economic impacts of the aforementioned policy recommendations would be, they are certainly steps worth taking if environmental risk is wished to be minimized. Economic risks from the aforementioned policies, however, would not have to be assumed if demand for spent compost meets the supply. This would, of course, be the optimal solution to the problem. What is clear, however, is that there are ways to mitigate environmental risk even if the demand never meets the supply. As such, the aforementioned policies are important considerations.

It is remarkable how much potential exists for the process of mushroom farming to be refined and realigned with common environmental goals while also providing new possible economic opportunities. By using organic material containing less pesticides, implementing a pasteurization process for spent compost, and encouraging more widespread reuse of spent compost, environmental risks can be nearly completely mitigated. Economic benefits may lie in the potential for repurposing spent compost for commercial sale. The primary barrier to overcome to realize this potential is the lack of industry knowledge about the reusability of spent compost. If such a barrier cannot be crossed, however, policy changes exist that hold the potential to still substantially mitigate environmental harm. Disposing of spent compost has little environmental risk if the mushroom industry operates under regulations either requiring or incentivizing pasteurization and lower pesticide use.

 

About the Author:

Max Laufer is a rising sophomore at Haverford College. Max was one of the co-founders of the Ideas for Action 14-18 program at Wharton. Max is passionate about problem solving and how young people can affect positive environmental change.

 

Bibliography:

  1. The One Tiny Region That Produces Nearly Half of U.S. Mushrooms – Modern Farmer. (2014). Modern Farmer. Retrieved 13 April 2017, from http://modernfarmer.com/2014/05/welcome-mushroom-country-population-nearly-half-u-s-mushrooms/
  2. Facts About Chester County | Chester County, PA – Official Website. (2017). org. Retrieved 13 April 2017, from http://chesco.org/892/Facts-About-Chester-County
  3. NSTATE, w. (2017). Economy of Pennsylvania including Pennsylvania Agriculture and Manufacturing from NETSTATE.COM. com. Retrieved 13 April 2017, from http://www.netstate.com/economy/pa_economy.htm
  4. Mitchell, D. (2015). Mushroom demand grows across board | The Packer. Thepacker.com. Retrieved 13 April 2017, from http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/marketing-profiles/Mushroom-demand-grows-across-board-288830551.html
  5. Impact of the Mushroom Industry on the Environment (Mushrooms). (2017). Mushrooms (Penn State Extension). Retrieved 19 August 2017, from http://extension.psu.edu/plants/vegetable-fruit/mushrooms/mushroom-substrate/impact-of-the-mushroom-industry-on-the-environment
  6. (2017). Pasteurization of Mushroom Substrate and other Solids. Retrieved 19 August 2017, from http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1380281604_Kurtzman.pdf
  7. Using Spent Mushroom Substrate (mushroom soil) as a Soil Amendment to Improve Turf (Center for Turfgrass Science). (2017). Center for Turfgrass Science (Penn State University). Retrieved 19 August 2017, from http://plantscience.psu.edu/research/centers/turf/extension/factsheets/mushroom-soil

The Gashora Clinic Water Project

By Ocek Eke, Director of Local and Global Service Learning Programs at Penn Engineering

Clean drinking water is a luxury that many people around the globe can not afford.  This fact is more pronounced in developing countries where water-borne diseases are widespread because water sources tend to be local streams and lakes that are often contaminated with pollution.

In 2012, the General Electric Foundation generously donated ten state-of-the-art water filtration systems to the government and people of Rwanda. One of these filters was installed in the village of  Gashora.

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Water filtration system donated to Gashora Health Clinic by GE Foundation

Penn Engineering in Gashora

Gashora is also the location of the Gashora Girls Academy for Science and Technology (GGAST).  This elite all-girl secondary school was established to encourage young Rwandan women to pursue careers in STEM subjects.

GGAST is a partner of Penn Engineering and through our Service Learning course.  We collaborate with the Academy on a several projects. This summer, we offered information communication technology training for students and faculty, and installed solar lights and solar powered water pumps to improve the quality of life of students, faculty, and staff.

At Penn Engineering, we approach our service learning programs with an emphasis on long and sustained relationships with our overseas partners. We believe that the communities in which we work should positively benefit by our presence.  To this end, we paid a visit to the Gashora Clinic medical team after being informed that they were in desperate need of water. The Director and staff lamented the challenges they face daily in curing illness, especially in children.

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The Gashora Health Clinic

Then the director took us to the back of the clinic and showed us the water filtration system that GE Foundation donated and installed four years ago. We learned that many of the patients in his clinic are being treated for water-related illnesses contracted by using contaminated water from the nearby Lake Rumira.

The Challenge

The unfortunate irony is that there is an abundance of equipment (i.e., filters and water tanks) yet a shortage of clean water. The filtration system was designed to rely on rain catchment and the local utility for water. However, rainfall in Gashora is sporadic at best and the local water utility service is unreliable.  When asked if a bore-hole or local well could supply water to the clinic, the director explained that the underground water is highly contaminated with lead and manganese, making it both unusable and cost-prohibitive to filter.

Next, we walked with the director to Lake Rumira, about 1.5 kilometers away from the clinic. There we saw children and women swimming and fetching water with yellow jerry-cans. The director explained that while there is water in the lake year-round, it is contaminated, too. The end result is a high rate of people afflicted with water-borne diseases due to a severe shortage of clean water at the Gashora Health Clinic.

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Lake Rumira, main source of drinking water for people in Gashora

I asked him a simple but complicated question, “What if Penn Engineering could bring the water from the lake to the clinic’s filtration system?” He smiled, and said that he would accept our offer if we were extending one. “Can you really do it?” he asked.  As engineers, we design and build solutions to real-world problems all the time. I was confident we could bring clean water to the Gashora Clinic.

Complications…

In order to move forward, we learned that we had to get the permission of the district’s village elders before we could carry out a project of this magnitude. In essence we would have to dig a trench from Lake Rumira to the clinic. There were a series of steps that were necessary that required time and patience:

  • The Deputy Mayor instructed us to put our proposal in writing and bring back to him. While he supported the idea, he cautioned that we might run into problems getting permission from land owners whose lands would be impacted by the trench for the water pipes.
  • We wrote and submitted the proposal to the Deputy Mayor, and he promised to take it to the District Mayor.
  • The Deputy Mayor informed us that the District Mayor was excited about the project and would talk to the elders of Gashora village to give the permission to dig the trench.
  • The elders deliberated with the the District Mayor and Clinic Director.

Ultimately, Penn Engineering was granted the permission to dig the 1½ km trench, and to proceed with the project.

Next Steps

Our goal is to pump water from Lake Rumira using a solar powered water pump installed at a secure location on the lakeshore.  A solar powered pump frees the community from reliance on the local power grid and contributes to long-term sustainability. The water will be rock-filtered to remove silt and debris before it is pumped into a waiting tank where gravity will draw small particles to the tank bottom. At this point, the water will be pumped through the GE filtration system that will remove chemical contaminants and purify the water.  The clean water will then be transferred to the clinic’s tank and the kiosk tank for villagers’ use.

One of the most appealing aspects of this project is that together, we are building capacity with our local partners for long-term sustainability. Gashorans will learn to maintain the equipment, and operate the pump. Penn faculty and students will assist in education and implementation. We have also partnered with Health Builders International, a nonprofit organization based in Kigali to assist us in monitoring the quality of the lake water over time.

At present, most of the trench for the water pipes has been dug and we are poised to complete the project when our service-learning course returns to Gashora in May 2017.

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The Trench from Lake Rumira to Gashora Health Clinic, Rwanda

Help Us Bring Clean Water to Gashora

There is one critical piece missing to the project: The pipes.  Penn Engineering student leader, Erica Higa, has set up a GoFundMe site to help raise $40,000 to cover the cost of the pipes.

The people of Gashora desperately need this project completed. Penn students have benefited intellectually and culturally from the enriched experience of performing service in a foreign country. Penn Engineering is committed to finishing this project and we invite you to join us in bringing clean water to the people of Gashora. Please go to our gofundme site, any financial assistance you can give to us is greatly appreciated: https://www.gofundme.com/WaterForGashora

Introducing the Young Environmental Professionals Network of Philadelphia

By Bert Barnes, IGEL Graduate Coordinator & second-year MES student

The Philadelphia area is characterized by a wide variety of industries, including medicine, education, financial services, telecommunications, and manufacturing. Over time, numerous institutions have sprung up to aid the development of the professionals working in these industries. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for environmental services, an integral but often-overlooked part of the area’s economic and social fabric.

As an environmental professional who has worked for years in the Philadelphia area, I’m familiar with numerous professional organizations, from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to the smaller, specialized organizations. Only one cultivates relationships across functions within the environmental services industry and related fields: Society for Women Environmental Professionals, which is restricted to women. As the environmental dimension of law, insurance, and other disciplines continues to grow in importance (and as Philadelphia emerges as a leader in sustainability), one must wonder why the professional landscape lacks an organization that unites young professionals within these roles.

We are launching the Young Environmental Professionals Network of Philadelphia (YEPN) in response to this void. YEPN will be a place for young professionals working in environmental fields to connect, learn, and develop. Professionals from all of Philadelphia’s industries will be represented within the organization. Already, we have received interest from people in consulting, law, energy, insurance, and engineering. If you’re interesting in learning more, check out our LinkedIn and Facebook groups. Feel free to contact me with questions, as well.

The first YEPN happy hour is taking place from 6 to 8pm on Tuesday, September 27 at Crow and The Pitcher, just south of Rittenhouse Square on 19th Street. Chris Crockett, Chief Environmental Officer of Aqua America, will be speaking at the event. If you have found yourself pondering the questions mentioned above, or if you’re just interested in learning more about your fellow environmental professional and the opportunities in the Philadelphia area, I would encourage you to attend!

MIT OpenAg Lab – Building a Food Computer

By Neelam Ferrari
Moravian Academy Student

Hi, my name is Neelam Ferrari. I am a rising high school senior at Moravian Academy and I have been working as a summer intern at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  My work is focused on a project which is part of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Laboratory.  The OpenAg Lab is focusing on building a ‘Food Computer’ which involves an open source approach to the global food production and distribution system, through a combination of collaborative genetics, computer science and robotics, and web based public outreach. With an increasing global population over the next 30-50 years, and more anticipated weather driven food shortages as a result of climate change, the lab is hoping to develop technologies that can help feed the world in the future.

My contribution to the project involves working with laboratory instrumentation, independent research, and public outreach.  I am using a hand-held spectrometer to take readings from different varieties of test plants in the lab, analyzing data, and identifying which characteristics are most important in understanding the plant’s phenotype. The spectrometer measures the color characteristics, which can be related to physical appearance and flavor and this data goes into the ‘open phenotype’ library for other researchers to use. In addition, I am researching in more detail about the pigment characteristics related to anthocyanin, brix and carotenoids. These pigments recorded by the spectrometer are related to characteristics such as color, ripeness, flavor and sugar content. This information here can be used to guide future experiments in the lab.  Finally, I have created a thread on the OpenAg’s public forum “OpenAg for High Schoolers”, where I keep high school students informed about the events occurring at the lab and discuss any new discoveries that are made.  It is also a place for students to communicate with me and start projects, like those at OpenAg, in their own schools.

The projects at OpenAg are heavily involved with several components of sustainability: economic, ecological, and social.  Economic issues include providing new jobs, providing an adequate amount of food for the population, and trade between countries.  Some ecological issues include soil and water degradation. Finally some social issues include utilizing these technologies for low income families as well as creating a community based on the technologies.  These issues are closely related to the daily challenges faced by many of the companies involved with the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL).  How these goals are achieved, in my opinion, will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penn Sustainability Review Looking for Submissions

About PSR:

Penn Sustainability Review (PSR) is the only sustainability-focused publication at Penn. We are completely student-run, with online and print platforms featuring sustainability-related opinion editorials, leadership interviews, and academic papers across a wide range of disciplines. Since our inception in Fall 2011, we have aimed to provide a platform to exchange knowledge, ideas, and perspectives on wide-ranging sustainability issues, with the generous support of the Penn Green Fund Grant and under the guidance of the Earth and Environmental Science Department. We are now also a proud member of the Student Sustainability Association at Penn. If you want to know more about us or learn how to become a part of PSR, please email us at join.psr@gmail.com.

Look out for our next publication at the end of November! Continue reading

PennSustains Competition Gives Over $7,000 in Prizes in its Inaugural Year

*By PennSustains

IMG_7963-001PennSustains participants

Philadelphia, PA – PennSustains, the University of Pennsylvania’s first sustainability solution competition, hosted its inaugural event on October 19, 2013. The contest came together in just six months through the efforts of members from the Society of Women Engineers, Engineers without Borders, SEAS Green, and Penn International Sustainability Association. Benefactor Andy Rachleff, an alumnus and chairman of the SEAS Board of Overseers, challenged Penn students to devise something that celebrated “the joy of building things” and the fun of engineering. Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) and Conestoga Bank also generously sponsored the competition. Continue reading

Board Game for the Environment

poster1.Yixiu2

by Yixiu Zheng*

It has been roughly seven months since my first blog post entitled ‘A Portable Environmental Economics Lab,’ which illustrated my idea on developing an educational board game about water pollution trading. This idea came from a concept of environment economics, property rights, and I wanted to develop a game that could help students understand how permit trading works. Continue reading

Boosting Household Investments in Energy Efficiency

by Matej Hodek, Hyojoo Kim, Douglas Miller (C’12) & Antonia Weitzer

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Despite widespread political support for measures promoting investments in energy efficiency in the residential sector, there remains vast, unmet potential. In order to better understand the reasoning behind meager investments in energy efficiency, a study was conducted by four graduate students at Imperial College London – including one former member of the IGEL team – to investigate the role of financial and non-financial factors affecting household decisions to invest in energy efficiency. Continue reading

Penn Enactus Launches Recycling Initiative for Veterans

by Penn Enactus

2013-02-28 20.24.35A close-up of the first mosaic made of recycled tiles and mirrors by the Penn Enactus Green Initiative team. Courtesy of Penn Enactus

In the fall of 2012, our group of students from the University of Pennsylvania undertook the monumental challenge of starting Penn Enactus, the Penn chapter of the entrepreneurial organization Enactus. Our team reached out to various business leaders and faculty members  to gather a sizable Business Advisory Board, and also greatly benefited from the guidance of Professor Keith W. Wiegelt of the Wharton School, and Joanne Spigonardo, Associate Director of the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL).

One of Penn Enactus’ three current start-up projects is the Green Initiative, created with guidance and support from Wharton IGEL. With environmental sustainability and economic welfare in mind, the Green Initiative team takes an ambitious approach to a common social problem: unemployed military veterans. Combining the determination of the target group, and the use of recycled tiles, mirrors and pottery, we are teaching veterans in the Philadelphia area the skills they need to make, market, and sell mosaic artworks. Continue reading