Sustainable projects percolate through Presidential Green Grants

Publication Date

Those pesky little plastic K-Cup packs that bring you joy in the form of your morning Joe also have a dark side: They are generally bad for the environment.

Typically, used K-Cups plucked from the single serve hot beverage machine get tossed in the trash before ultimately ending up in a landfill.

Environmentalists have long targeted the cups’ manufacturer, Keurig Green Mountain Inc., because of the challenge in recycling the cups, which are made from multilayers of plastic and classified with a No. 7 resin recycling code.

The cups also have a foil cover, and a paper-based filter, and they contain coffee grounds.

The company has pledged to make all K-Cups recyclable by 2020. In the meantime, the company is working with a disposal partner to make recycling its current cups more manageable.

That intrigued Jessica Hopper. As the purchasing manager in Financial Services, she knows where all the dead K-Cups are. Hopper wants to reduce the number of K-Cups that get tossed out on campus.

“They are not good for the environment,” said Hopper, a non-coffee drinker.

Hopper’s project is among 10 awarded a Presidential Green Grant during a ceremony Friday featuring President Stephen C. Ainlay in Feigenbaum Hall.

Now in its ninth year, the Green Grant program supports environmentally sustainable projects at Union, and is open to faculty, staff and students. Since it was launched, grants totaling nearly $154,000 have been awarded to support 106 projects.

The grants are administered by a review committee made up of environmentally and socially concerned students, faculty and staff.

This year’s projects range from a tick-collecting robot to low-flow water aerators to highlighting the effects of textiles in fashion.

Sustainability is one of the key priorities of the College’s Strategic Plan.

In 2007, Ainlay was among the first to sign the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (now known as the Climate Leadership Commitments), pledging to formally work on reducing, and eventually eliminating, campus greenhouse gas emissions. And last month, Union was again named one of the country’s most environmentally responsible colleges, according to The Princeton Review’s “Guide to Green Colleges.”

Speaking to concerns that sustainability might become a lower priority, Ainlay reassured the grant winners that Union’s commitment to sustainability is not a function of federal political priorities.

“A commitment to sustainability resides in institutions - whether they are colleges or corporations - and Union College has affirmed our commitment in two strategic plans,” Ainlay told the group at Friday’s ceremony. “I’m grateful for all of you leading by example. Through your projects, we see the difference individuals can make. I hope you take your commitment to sustainability into the world.”

For Hopper’s project, she will initially work with the two departments that are the biggest consumers of K-Cups, Communications and Admissions. Special bins purchased from Green Mountain will be placed in each department to collect the used K-Cups. The bins will then be shipped each month to the company’s disposal partner, where the bulk of the cup will be recycled into energy and the coffee grounds into compost.

She hopes to expand the project to other departments in the future.

“Each of the projects we honor today represents the best of our community,” said Jeffrey Corbin, associate professor of biology and faculty co-chair of U Sustain. “They range across campus – from student to faculty to staff, from engineering to chemistry to art, from recycling to energy to water. They each take an idea and, with a little bit of monetary support and maybe just as important, encouragement, have the chance to see it become reality.”

Corbin and Meghan Haley-Quigley ’11, manager of Sustainability and Green Initiatives, presented each winner with a certificate.

In addition to Hopper, the other 2016-17 Green Grant winners and their projects:

Jake Ulrich ‘17: Research the relationship between chain length and human serum albumin binding (HAS) of perfluoroalkyl acids. PFAAs are fluorinated analogues of fatty acids and exist with a variety of carbon chain lengths.

Jeremy Manus ‘17: Design and manufacture a robot for tick collection. The robot will be able to navigate into areas where current methods cannot reach successfully, creating a more accurate tick density.

Laura Marlin ‘19: Create an exhibit in the Wold Center to educate the campus about the issues revolving around post-consumer use of textiles. The goal is to gather film, textiles and resources to create an educational space about sustainable fashion.

Jeffrey Wilk ‘17: Explore chemical alternatives to hydrofluoric acid for titanium microstructure etching.

Alexandra Pagano ‘18: Study two Ultraviolet filter chemicals, Avobenzone and OD-PABA, which have both been found to degrade in the presence of UV light. The purpose is to understand how these UV filter chemicals degrade in the environment and assess the toxicities of the degradation products.

Alice Hayden ‘17: Study the temporal variation of PFOA in the water of three different private wells and the spatial variation of PFOA in streams throughout the Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

Jacob Pessin ‘19: Graphene aerogels are a class of gels in which the gel matrix is made of carbon atoms. Polyaniline (PANI) is a conducting polymer of the semi-flexible rod family. The goal is to use the properties of these two materials, PANI and graphene aerogels, to create a highly porous and conductive matrix.

Ly Nguyen ‘17: Conserve water by installing modern low-flow water aerators in buildings with older faucets.

Amanda Ervin (Makerspace coordinator): Develop thermo-electric generators for wearable devices.