Sustainable Living: Tech students show ecological responsibility

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette The aquaponics system at the Sustainable Demonstration House has matured significantly and now has a variety of lush plant life.

HOUGHTON — Earth week is almost finished, but some Michigan Tech students live the sustainable life every day of the week. Residents at the Sustainable Demonstration House track their use of water and electricity, keep a log of their waste, compost their food scraps, keep an indoor aquaponic garden, and use high-efficiency appliances every day.

Meghan Schultz, a Michigan Tech student in her third year, is house coordinator. She organizes the residents for events and projects like Saturday’s greenhouse workshop.

The residents will be helping kids from grades 2-8 build small greenhouses that can be placed over outdoor plants to extend the growing season. It could be used inside too, but Schultz recommends outdoor use.

“I think that’s where you’d get the most practical use out of it,” Schultz said.

The residents are also hosting an open house with light refreshments on Saturday. House residents and members of the SDH enterprise team will be at the SDH to explain how to implement sustainable practices in any home and explain projects like the new plastic recycling project. Plastic refuse is going to be collected and reshaped into useful items. The first thing on the list is house numbers.

“Right now the house doesn’t have any,” Warren Krettek said.

Krettek is a graduating Michigan Tech student who has been leading the enterprise team as their project manager. The team designs and implements projects around the house like resource tracking, aquaponics and composting.

The house recently received a large donation of new, efficient appliances from Whirlpool that included new ovens, a microwave, washer and dryer, refridgerator, induction cook tops and a composter. All of the appliance have the Environmental Protection Agency’s Engergy Star rating. Krettek said they tested the washer and is used one-third of the energy the old washer used.

The composter is a Zera Food Recycler developed by Whirlpool Labs. It is not currently available, the SDH has one of a limited-run of test units.

“You can compost things you wouldn’t normally be able to,” Krettek said.

Unlike traditional composting, the Zera can compost meat and dairy products. Krettek thinks it could even handle chicken bones, although he is vegetarian and has not tried it. Once the unit is full, an additive is added and then it grinds and heats the refuse for up to 24 hours. Schultz said it sounds like a dishwasher. It outputs dry, ready-to-use fertilizer.

The SDH also has a new Bokashi composter. Traditional composting in an aerobic process that requires oxygen to progress correctly. Bokashi is designed as an anaerobic process. Once it starts, the bucket used is kept sealed so that the composting process can take place in an oxygen-depleted environment. This means there is a smell — if the bucket is opened — but allows composting of dairy and meat refuse. It is also another way for composting to be done inside the house, something important for people in the Upper Peninsula.

“You can’t really do a (traditional) compost most of the year because it gets covered in snow,” Krettek said.

The aquaponics system at the SDH has matured, now supporting a small crop of carrots, oregano, parsley and mint.

“Over winter break it went from like nothing to this,” Krettek said.

Next semester a new student is being considered to take over the system and reconfigure it. The current system was donated by a professor who discontinued using it. There are issues, including cleaning the aquarium, that need to be solved. Krettek is also interested in finding out what plants would maximize the system’s output.

“Now it just kind of cycles on its own,” he said.

Schultz said the house residents check the pH balance regularly and have yet to see any issues. Last week she tried one of the carrots grown in the system.

“It had full flavor and was really good,” she said.

The SDH is currently accepting student applications for residency.

The open house is 2-4 p.m. on Saturday at 21680 Woodland Rd.

For Arbor Day, April 26, SDH team members will gather at the U.J. Noblet Forestry Building to take part in a sustainability convention with other environmental organizations.