Michigan Technological University students impacting sustainability on campus and in surrounding community

Copper Country

HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – A group of five currently reside in MTU’s Sustainability Demonstration House (SDH), they put on events to engage the campus and community in how to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

These students don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. Rose Turner, Kendra Lachcik, Abbey Herndon, Sammy Borcizk and Lexi Steve are the current residents of SDH. The project started in 2016 and the first group of students moved in during the Fall of 2017.

“This house was built in the 1950’s and was donated to the university in the 1990’s and this house was used to house the university presidents for about 10 years but then after that the house remained empty and that was a huge waste of energy and resources,” said Turner. “So in 2016 the Alternative Energy Enterprise proposed to take over the house and spend five years retrofitting it into a NetZero fully sustainable house.”

The house has solar arrays and storage batteries for the system that allows them to use mostly solar power for their electricity.

“The biggest system in this house, the very first system installed was our 8.6-kilowatt solar array,” said Turner. “That is our biggest system and it has really pushed us to NetZero energy and we’re saving hundreds of dollars on our electricity bill because of it and we also have our 20-kilowatt hours of battery storage in the basement and the coolest thing is about 90% of this system was donated from individuals and companies so they’ve really made it possible for us to be NetZero energy.”

Residents are always implementing new systems and coming up with more ways to improve sustainability.

“The goal of the house is to implement sustainable systems and kind of always keep working on it so one of the first that happened was switching out the light bulbs, but now we have growing systems and we’re always trying to add new things and also educate the community and the campus on sustainability as well,” said Lachcik.

The house has hydroponic systems for growing food, raised garden beds outdoors and three different composting systems.

“We have our hydroponics and aquaponics systems and they can look a little intimidating because they’re really big and they can take a little bit of work to get set up and some maintenance but you can make smaller hydroponic and aquaponics systems for your home and you can just grow herbs or something like that so you do have fresh food,” said Herndon. “You can also just regrow your own food.”

The compost they make can be used in their raised outdoor garden beds. The house has three different systems for composting: one that dehydrates food using a machine, vermicompost and an outdoor three bin system.

“We have three different composting systems here so we have our vermicompost which we have in our house which is nice for our winters when our outdoor compost kind of freezes a little bit so our vermicompost is that we have a bucket with worms and dirt and then we just throw our fresh produce in there and the worms will eat it and then it’ll eventually turn into fertilizer that we can use in our plants,” said Herndon.

Several of the house residents eat plant-based foods to lessen their impact on the environment but say that there are ways to eat sustainably without cutting out meat completely. Borcizk says she being conscious of where their food comes from is another step towards sustainability.

“I do go to the co-op and I kind of view that as like supporting the local farmers and when I am at home like I know the people I’m getting my eggs from and I think just supporting local farms is a step towards being environmental just because they’re not huge methane producers,” said Borcizk.

One of their challenges this semester was to reduce the house to zero landfill waste. The students strive to reduce the use of or reuse items before they recycle or throw them away.

“One thing that we do here at the house is we have challenges every couple of weeks and so we want to challenge ourselves to be better in various ways so one of the things we did was we took the trashcan out of our kitchen and kind of tucked it around the corner so that when you’d go to throw something away you would kind of think, oh there’s no trash here what else should I do with this like I don’t want to throw it away,” said Herndon.

Turner says the students also learn from each other by living in the SDH.

“We also invest in a lot of sustainable products to help us reduce our waste, and we again learn from each other so I was like oh I keep buying this plastic tube of chapstick and Abby was like oh I have this compostable one,” said Turner. “So we learn from each other and I know some people will really focus on that initial investment for sustainable products and they’ll be hesitant to buy them but we’ve done the math and for nearly all sustainable products because you can use them for years and years and years you’re going to be saving hundreds to thousands of dollars.”

Sustainable products was one topic the group covered at their webinars this past year. Outreach to the community through webinars, events and open houses is another objective of the house. On April 17, SDH hosted a waste reduction drive to help recycle products that local facilities may not accept.

The day of the drive over 31,000 pieces of trash were counted without completing the count. SDH estimates that they will outdo last years waste reduction drive which diverted 46,000 pieces of trash from the landfill.

Another event they are hosting focuses on the campus community. SDH is helping to put on an Earth Day dinner for MTU students.

“The main components is that all the food is going to be plant based so that means no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no milk, nothing, there’s still going to be a couple meat options because since we are still providing for people in the dorms we couldn’t have like completely plant based,” said Lachcik.

The eating utensils will all be compostable and they’ll be working with a local farm for composting the food waste.

“The food waste is going to be going to a local farm that we’ve already been bringing waste to and we’re most likely going to bring like some of the bamboo forks and spoons and stuff like that and also compostable cups to a commercial composter or use them for another project,” said Lachcik.

The plastic wrap around the eating utensils will be used for other projects or to a recycling facility. Other sustainability groups on campus and residents of SDH will have information booths at the event for outreach to the campus community.

The SDH residents say there are a few easy swaps anyone can make to lead a more sustainable life.

“One big thing that you can easily reduce is water bottles which is something you use every day so like none of us hardly use plastic water bottles anymore because it’s super easy to avoid if you just have your own water bottle and there’s usually a place that you can just fill up or make sure you bring a couple of water bottles with you,” said Herndon. “Another thing is plastic bags, reusable bags so everyone goes to the store, goes to the grocery store all the time and you can easily find reusable bags or even reuse the bags that you have gotten from a store so if somewhere gave you like a sturdier bag you can just reuse that whenever you go shopping for clothes or going to the grocery store a gift shop, you can reuse bags anywhere and it reduces so much waste.”

Another thing you can carry with you is reusable cutlery, either what you have in your silverware drawer or a travel set. They even add to reuse things that are typically single-use but that can be washed off and reused.

To learn more about the Sustainability Demonstration House you can find them on Facebook, Instagram and their website.

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