Sabrina Xie/Sun Graphic Designer

A subteam of Cornell University Sustainable Design is developing a system of aquaponics to help grow crops in winter and minimize agriculture's carbon footprint.

April 19, 2021

Cornell University Sustainable Design Aims to Reduce Waste and Food Insecurity

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Once a coordinated effort to give heaps of gently used microfridges and lamps a new home, Cornell’s annual Dump and Run pop-up has taken a back seat for the past year. Now, Cornell University Sustainable Design is breathing new life into the effort to reduce waste in Ithaca by swapping in-person sales with a sleek app to streamline the reuse of items students leave behind.

Founded in 2009 as a solar decathlon team, the group now known as Cornell University Sustainable Design is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month of working to envision a more sustainable campus. 

A decade since the Cornell Solar Decathlon Team rebranded and transitioned to tackling sustainability, the team is currently working on 12 different projects  to increase sustainability in the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities.

For Nelson Ooi ’24, CUSD stood out to him even as a high school student applying to Cornell. Ooi said he feels more strongly than ever about finding sustainable solutions to community-wide issues.

“I saw how CUSD makes sustainability exciting and puts a lot of faith in the students,” Ooi said. “That faith empowers you to try all kinds of out-of-the-box ideas getting at the core of sustainability issues.”

Ooi leads Alternative Recycling Cornell, a CUSD team that is tackling the void left behind by Cornell’s annual Dump and Run, which has been scaled back since the beginning of the pandemic due to social distancing concerns. 

The Dump and Run, the community sale that crops up on Saturday and Sunday of orientation week every August, allowed students to purchase items, such as clothing and furniture, that students donated when leaving campus the previous May. The proceeds were then donated to local nonprofit organizations. According to Ooi, the Dump and Run initiative diverted approximately 40 tons of waste from landfills. 

The Alternative Recycling Cornell team is currently developing an online platform that would allow students to exchange and sell items year-round that would usually be donated to the Dump and Run each August.

Meanwhile, the development team has been working to get the app running, with the goal of launching it by the start of the fall 2021 semester.

Ooi said the team is looking to establish long-term connections with local charities and organizations to give back to the Ithaca community. 

Another one of CUSD’s teams is Resilient Environment Agriculture Laboratory, which focuses on empowering local farms by creating a cold climate aquaponics system to address food insecurity in Ithaca.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, the farming of aquatic plants and animals for food, and hydroponics, the process of growing plants in nutrient solutions without soil.

While the team originally planned to only implement the project in Ithaca, they received additional funding at the beginning of the semester that will allow them to expand their initiative to 70 test sites around the world. 

“[The increased funding] is exciting news,” said Louisa Bjerke ’22, the REAL team lead. “It’s really cool to be able to see the huge impact that we have the potential to make. Before this project team, I didn’t really know how I could apply my knowledge [of sustainability] or that a small team of 15 students could really make an impact.” 

The REAL team is converting an existing greenhouse at Cornell into one that allows fish and crops to be grown side by side, making locally-sourced produce more accessible while producing a minimal carbon footprint.

In this recirculating aquaponics system, bacteria convert ammonia — a waste product of fish — into nitrate, an important nutrient that plants absorb. Water from the plant beds then returns to the fish enclosure, free of ammonia.

“This [system] combines two different sources of food … and also gets rid of the need for some chemical fertilizers,” Bjerke said.

Producing some chemical fertilizers requires burning fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

But this system is harder to implement in cold climates compared to warmer climates, because low temperatures can make it harder to grow crops, according to Bjerke.

Currently, the team is in the research and development phase of the project, which involves planning thermal models specific to the Ithaca site, selecting ideal crops for the greenhouse and calculating projected crop and profit yields for farmers.

To allow farmers in Ithaca to grow crops in the winter, the REAL team is designing a heating system to ensure that the cold climate greenhouse can withstand low temperatures. 

But the team isn’t working in isolation. Bjerke said they have also worked to ensure that their ideas align with what farmers want. The team created a stakeholder outreach subteam, which maintains contact with farmers in the Ithaca community.

“Last semester, one of the problems that we ran into was that we, as students, don’t fully understand what it is like to be a farmer,” Bjerke said.

Bjerke said the team hopes to wrap up the research phase this semester so they can start building and testing out the greenhouse system when COVID restrictions are likely eased next semester.

“I think our biggest success has been this whole semester,” Bjerke said. “COVID really put a damper on our work and despite this, we have been able to get a lot of meaningful work done.”