HomeEducationSustainability EducationA Recap of the 2023 Sustainability Symposium

A Recap of the 2023 Sustainability Symposium

2023 Sustainability Symposium Recap 

The Institute on the Environment (IonE) along with the Food and Bioproducts Engineering Organization (FaBEO) hosted an annual Sustainability Symposium, Friday, April 14th, 2023. 

Many students across the University of Minnesota campuses work towards sustainability, justice, and equity and the Symposium is a way to feature their work and impact on our communities. The Symposium is open to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students across all U of M campuses, and this year featured a hybrid model incorporating in-person experiences for students and connecting them virtually to students across the state. 

Presentations this year covered a variety of topics and perspectives, ranging in personal experiences of conscious consumption, zero waste solutions, and plastic circularity. Students presented through either a lightning talk, poster board, or creative work. You can read more about students’ presentations in the Symposium Booklet.

As always the students’ presentations were strong, making it difficult for our judges to place a winner. We would like to congratulate and recognize the following Symposium winners for their work and presentations:

Lightning Talks 

Rights of Nature

Emma Hill, University of Minnesota Duluth

Environmental policies within the U.S. and around the globe are ineffective at preventing environmental degradation due to one fundamental flaw; they are based on the Westernized view of nature, seeing the natural world as an object worth exploiting solely for anthropocentric purposes. In the past 10 years, a new movement has been gaining momentum all over the world in an effort to create a paradigm shift to a more sustainable way of living. The Rights of Nature movement seeks to give nature legal rights to grant nature the respect and protection it needs. This movement challenges the anthropocentric view of the environment and seeks to write the connection between humans and nature into policy. In this presentation I will be going over the basic concepts of Rights of Nature and Earth Jurisprudence, the larger legal philosophy the movement falls under. I will be going over why the Rights of Nature matter to both humans and the environment, and how the movement is being implemented around the world.

Increasing the Efficiency of Bifacial Thin Film Solar Cells

Briana Doken, University of Minnesota Morris 

As energy demands continue to climb and climate change remains one of the biggest challenges we face, the need for efficient sources of renewable energy is extremely important. One promising area of renewable energy research is thin film solar cells (TFSCs). While traditional commercial silicon solar cells are usually 200-500 μm thick, TFSCs can be as thin as ~10 μm (less than 1/7th the width of a human hair). This allows TFSCs to be less resource-intensive, flexible, lightweight, and more cost-effective than traditional cells. One way to optimize the energy output of TFSCs is to create bifacial TFSCs cells – cells that can convert light hitting both the front and back of the cell into energy. In this research project, we used Solar Cell Capacitance Software (SCAPS) to numerically simulate the impact of changing various material properties of bifacial TFSCs. We found that thinner cells with low surface recombination velocities, low total defect densities, and contact work functions that create the correct electric fields at the cell’s contacts led to the highest-performing bifacial cells. Research into how various material parameters impact cell performance can guide the process of creating bifacial TFSCs.

How Collecting Facilities Data Can Create Opportunities for Research and Sustainability; What Morris Is Doing to Get Data into the Hands of Students

Joey Beck, University of Minnesota Morris

This project describes how sub-meter facilities data in Morris’ Green Prairie Hall can be used for student research and sustainability. Green Prairie is a living and learning community designed to be eco-friendly and meet Minnesota B3 sustainability guidelines. The building has been fitted with a variety of sub-meters in many of its suites to optimize its energy efficiency. These meters are designed to measure many aspects of water and electricity, compile their data with the help of several data transmitting devices, and send their data to a server where data can be analyzed. After the graduation of a sustainability intern years ago, these meters have nowhere to send their data, so data collection has paused. Morris plans on restarting data collection and connecting the devices to newer software. Work on this new change is slow, but promising. When Morris gets data flowing again, we’d like to first send Green Prairie residents the electricity and water consumption data from their corresponding suites. This will help in giving residents a general sense of familiarity with how much electricity and water they use in their everyday lives. Having accurate data available will open doors for research projects and studies to be done in Green Prairie. Northern Arizona University installed a variety of energy sub-meters across several of their campus buildings, a report from this university provides a great example of how Morris can responsibly use sub-metering data in student research.

Engaging Communities in Sustainability: Sustainability through Visibility and Transparency in North-Rhine Westphalia & Minnesota

Madelyn Schoenberger, University of Minnesota Morris 

Madelyn presented her experience as a student delegation member for Germany: Leading the Renewables Revolution 2023 program and a comparison of German and American sustainability communication models. 



Conscious Consumption: A Conversation Around American Food Culture in Light of the Climate Crisis

Ella Rodewald, University of Minnesota Twin Cities 

In line with many other reports, Project Drawdown, one of the world’s most comprehensive resources on climate crisis solutions, lists a plant-rich diet as one of the most effective ways in reducing CO2 emissions. And as more and more research detailing the harm of industrial animal agriculture on the environment comes out, it is all the more pressing to question why there is so much push-back against plant-rich diets in America. Sustainability advocates already call for conscious consumption in a multitude of ways, yet when it comes to calling for people to reduce animal product consumption this advocacy is viewed as radical instead of common sense. Connecting environmental, animal liberation and kinship ethics with cultural studies in rhetoric and marketing, I aim to describe why we ought to make conscious decisions about animal product consumption practices on the basis that eating animal products puts them in relationships with nonhuman animals.

Urban Heat Islands: Effects and Potential Solutions

Ainsley Schwerr, University of Minnesota Twin Cities 

The urban heat island effect occurs when cities experience higher temperatures than the rural areas surrounding them. This is often due to a lack of green spaces and an abundance of asphalt and concrete. Heat islands are not distributed equitably throughout cities and are often concentrated in areas with a majority poor or racialized population. Heat islands can cause negative health impacts for those living in them and are only getting worse with climate change. This is a trend seen across the world with many high-tech and some low-tech solutions to the problem. This presentation will explore the impact of heat islands and the potential solutions to combat them.

Reducing Carbon Emissions at a Midwestern Academic Medical Center

Jo Bjorgaard, University of Minnesota Twin Cities 

The healthcare industry is responsible for approximately 8.5% of carbon emissions in the United States. Measuring baseline GHG emissions is the first step in developing interventions to reduce emissions. Before this project, there was no process in place to measure baseline GHG emissions or maintain a GHG inventory to reduce emissions at a Midwestern Academic Medical Center (MAMC). This nurse-led healthcare sustainability project was conducted in two phases. At first, a standardized GHG emission inventory process was developed and implemented and all scope 1 and 2 baseline emissions were measured. The second phase of this project was conducted as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt project and used process Improvement methodology to analyze emissions within the MAMC setting and develop data-centric, feasible solutions to reduce carbon emissions, targeting the areas where the greatest impact can be made. This project represents the initial phase of the overarching goal to develop site-wide and system-wide carbon reduction plans and climate mitigation and adaptation plan in this healthcare system to address human and planetary health. This presentation will describe the process of developing this nurse-led sustainability initiative as well as present the findings.

Pyrolysis to Promote Plastic Circularity

Isaac Mastalski, University of Minnesota Twin Cities 

Massive amounts of plastic waste have been generated over the past several decades, and growing demand will only exacerbate this problem. At the same time, methods for recycling plastics have remained almost entirely unchanged, causing about 90% of plastic waste simply to be discarded in landfills or oceans, and requiring a continuous stream of fossil resources to make new plastics to meet rising demand. Pyrolysis technologies present an opportunity to change this narrative and instead promote a plastic “circular economy,” whereby all plastics are recirculated through a closed-loop cycle. However, there is a severe lack of understanding regarding the reactions that underlie plastic pyrolysis, and thus significant inertia must be overcome to facilitate this desperately needed transition. In this talk, I will first briefly discuss the merits of pyrolysis and then present a bit of my thesis research with the “Pulse-Heated Analysis of Solid Reactions” (PHASR) system. Finally, I will demonstrate how my results from low-density polyethylene pyrolysis with PHASR can be used immediately to design industrial-scale reactors for plastic recycling, and I will discuss some of the next steps required for realizing the plastic circular economy.

Creative Work & Posters

Abstracted Oil Life

Ella McClure, University of Minnesota Twin Cities 

Abstracted Oil Life is an acrylic painting on a reused canvas piece. While brainstorming for this piece, I wanted to tie what I was learning about in my sustainability and environmental justice classes to aspects of the natural world that have always called to me. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI, biking distance from both Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. Growing up surrounded by watersheds sparked my interest in ecology and conservation from a fairly young age. However, learning about sustainability and systems thinking changed the way I view and interact with water. Water has always seemed untouchable because there is so much of it and we are surrounded by it, yet at the same time it is so incredibly finite and precious. Learning about the consistent pollution that is dumped into Lake Michigan and how oil spills can damage entire ecosystems is something that scares me. When I finally sat down in front of my already-used canvas, black oil spills started dripping out of my paintbrush. Oil and greed overcame the sun, water, and neighborhood I grew up in. Milwaukee is an incredibly segregated city, which creates large divides in access, health, and day-to-day life. In the piece, Mother Nature is crying, telling humans to stop, but the world is being swept away by money. This painting serves as a reminder of what is to come if we do not focus on finding sustainable solutions to the problems we are facing.

Impacts of Sludge Exposure on the Properties and Sorption Interactions of Plastic Films

Ariana Campanaro, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Plastic pollution presents a global threat to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In the environment, plastics experience chemical and physical changes altering their toxicity, interactions with other species, and overall fate. Despite increased interest in studying plastic degradation, little work has addressed how plastics change in wastewater treatment systems. The efficient removal of plastics during wastewater treatment has led to large amounts of plastics being transferred into sewage sludge (i.e., waste). In many countries, including the U.S., sludge is used as an alternative to chemical fertilizers, creating a pathway for plastics to enter agricultural soils. Thus, it is imperative that we understand the effects of sludge exposure on the properties and environmental interactions of plastics. In this work, we assessed changes to the surface chemistry, crystallinity, and morphology of polylactic acid (PLA) and polyethylene (PE) films resulting from their exposure to sewage sludge. Our model plastics were chosen to compare the behavior of an up-and-coming bioplastic (PLA) to a petroleum-based legacy plastic (PE). Additionally, we characterized the sorption interactions between PLA and PE films and a class of chemicals common in wastewater called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are of concern because they can have toxic, mutagenic, and/or carcinogenic properties and stay in the environment for long periods of time. Our results suggest that increases in hydrophilicity and changes in polymer crystallinity due to sludge exposure directly affect the PAH sorption capacity of plastic films. This work will allow us to better predict the plastic-facilitated transport of PAHs in the environment.

Green Labs Program: Promoting Sustainable Laboratory Practice

Grace Baudhuin, Ayushi Patel, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Laboratories save lives and promote human development. Unfortunately, laboratory practices can be extremely unsustainable due to energy, water, and plastic waste that contribute to ecological damage. Here, at the University of Minnesota-TC, the Office of Sustainability hopes to encourage more sustainable laboratory practices by expanding the Green Labs program. Eventually, a Green Labs certification will be implemented to incentivize sustainable laboratory behavior. Not only will this certification make positive impacts on the environment, but it will also give recognition to laboratories that are committed to these progressive efforts, and have a passion for combining societal development with an ecocentric sphere of consideration. We, at the Green Labs Program, are currently on the search for a pilot laboratory that is willing to allow us to install energy meters into many of the commonly used laboratory machinery. The hope is that after energy metering for about two weeks, we can implement a variety of sustainable practices to decrease energy consumption. After the launch of the program, we will continue to measure energy use to provide us with evidence of the success of our efforts. We are also keeping in mind that this Green Labs certification needs to be accessible and fairly straightforward, so there is a lot of room for feedback and other ideas from anyone who would like to share input.

White Earth Food Sovereignty Resources

Trevor Koski, Riley Stern, Alex Trousil, Adhvaith, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

The White Earth Ojibwe reservation is formally classified as a food desert, with the tribe owning only 10% of the land allotted to the reservation. Obtaining food sovereignty remains an important goal for the community to ensure members are food secure. Our project helps to bridge the gap of knowledge between community elders and community members by creating informational resources to be posted on the White Earth Community College website. These resources will both provide documentation of tradition as it becomes increasingly lost to time, as well as be a direct resource to community members. To achieve this goal, our team worked in tandem with students and leaders at White Earth Community College, the IonE Undergraduate Leadership Program, and the Health Foods Healthy Lives grant. The project required collaboration and open dialogue across different academic, cultural, and generational backgrounds to create impactful resources that will be used for years to come.


After students presented at the Sustainability Symposium, there was a public discussion panel featuring professionals, Rumbidzai Masawi, Dr. Heidi M. Peterson, Priscilla Trinh, and Dr. Roger Ruan. They spoke about the importance of the intersection between sustainable practice and agriculture and creating a more equitable future. 

Thank you to our sponsors and partners!

The 2023 Sustainability Symposium was made in collaboration with many folks across the U of M system. 

The Symposium planning team is grateful for our co-sponsors: The Humphrey School of Public Affairs, The College of Liberal Arts, The College of Science and Engineering, and The Institute for Advanced Study.

We are also grateful for our systemwide partners across the University of Minnesota: the Offices of Sustainability at Duluth, Morris, and Twin Cities as well as the Center for Sustainability at Crookston. 

Last, but not least, we are also grateful for our judges who make the Symposium a valuable experience for students. 

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