Student Startup Aims to Use Biofuel Waste for Good

Two doctoral candidates at The Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, run jointly by UT and ORNL are working towards a zero-waste manufacturing process by using byproducts for good. Specifically, Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle are working to utilize lignin, the pulpy fibrous mass remaining after plants are processed in biofuel production. The pair have developed a process to turn lignin into a product that would aid both the earth and the people who work it, quite literally turning one person’s trash into another one’s treasure.

“Lignin is a naturally occurring product found in all trees and grasses that results in 50 million tons of waste a year in the paper industry alone,” said Bova. “We have developed a process that allows us to make that lignin biodegradable and turn it into the large rolls of mulch film that farmers used to block weeds, retain moisture and soil temperature, and improve crop yield.”

Currently, lignin is severely underutilized – only 2 percent of it ends up in commercial use, whereas the rest ends up in landfills or being burned as a low value fuel. Compare this to the fact that farmers spend as much as $300 per acre to dispose of the current plastic they use on their crops, as well as the additional benefit that Bova and Beegle’s product is biodegradable and would be able to be plowed right back into the soil after harvest. This saves the farmers time and money, as well as keeps both wasted lignin and the plastic out of our landfills.

They call their company Grow Bioplastics, and have been seeing success in various entrepreneurial contests. Locally, they won first place in the Boyd Venture Challenge and won $1,500 in the Vol Court Pitch Competition. Additionally, they are finalists in Rice University’s Business Plan Competition (where they stand to win a $450,000 grand prize in addition to a $5,000 people’s choice prize determined by online voting), and are participating in the Charlotte Venture Challenge, the Megawatt Ventures Challenge in Florida, and a number of other clean-tech competitions around the country.

For more information on this awesome story, check out TN Today’s article, or go to Grow Bioplastic’s website.

UT to Host Campus Bagless Day on Earth Day

UT’s Office of Sustainability, in collaboration with the Student Government Association’s Environmental and Sustainability Committee, is raising awareness about consumption habits by hosting its first Campus Bagless Day on Earth Day, Friday, April 22.

VolShop and UT Dining locations across campus will not offer plastic bags all day. In 2013, plastics accounted for nearly 13 percent of trash before recycling, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“Plastic bags may be small in size, but they have a big impact in our wallets, our atmosphere, our oceans, and our landscapes,” said Don Black, a sophomore in civil engineering and co-director of the SGA Environmental and Sustainability Committee. “If we try going without them for a day, I think pretty soon we will realize that we never really needed them at all.”

Additionally, VolShop will offer 20 percent off tumblers, mugs, and water bottles in the Student Union, University Commons, and 17th and Cumberland store locations and online to promote the Mug Project. This campus-wide initiative to eliminate single-use containers and bottles allows reusable mug users to get ninety-nine-cent coffees and fountain beverages and 15 percent off specialty coffee beverages at campus dining locations.

UT Recycling and the Office of Sustainability promote waste reduction efforts throughout the year with other initiatives including campus recycling, composting, food donation, and Zero Waste Game Day, which works to eliminate at least 90 percent of waste created during athletic events through recycling and composting.

“We are thrilled to support the SGA in their initiative by hosting this new event and bringing awareness to the issue of waste reduction,” said Preston Jacobsen, campus sustainability manager. “It is exciting to see partners on campus willing to join in on the event and support sustainable issues on our campus.”

Earth Month begins Friday, April 1. Events, activities, and programs promoting the work the university does year-round to Make Orange Green will include:

Big Green Friday

Putting an environmental twist on the Big Orange Friday tradition, the second annual Big Green Friday on Friday, April 1, will kick off Earth Month. Members of the campus community are encouraged to wear green and stop by the Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for food, games, and giveaways.

Earth Month Celebration

The Earth Month celebration will offer food, live music, environmentally focused organizations from the UT and Knoxville communities, and the annual Recyclimpics games. The event will be held from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Thursday, April 7, on the Humanities and Social Sciences Amphitheater lawn.

Earth Month Scavenger Hunt

The Office of Sustainability will host the first Earth Month Scavenger Hunt from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Thursday, April 14. Teams of three will compete by looking for points on campus that represent environmental projects and programs, including UT’s Stormwater Management, Arboriculture, and Recycling. Teams can register online.

Sustainability Day of Service

Students can volunteer with agencies that promote environmental awareness, sustainability, conservation, and recycling during the third annual Sustainability Day of Service. The event will be held from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Friday, April 15.

UT Recycling’s SUSTAINABILITY Spring Art Show

UT Recycling will host a spring art show featuring an array of artists and media, all with an environmental or waste theme. The event is from 6:00 to 10:00 pm. Friday, April 15, at Fluorescent Gallery, 627 N. Central Street, and will include live music and refreshments.

Environmental Leadership Luncheon

The annual Environmental Leadership Award Luncheon will take place at the UT Gardens brick patio from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Earth Day, Friday, April 22. The free lunch will offer networking opportunities with other environmentally friendly students, faculty, and staff, in addition to the award ceremony for environmental leaders on campus and within the community. A reservation is required.


Katherine Saxon (, 865-974-8365)

UT Research Project – Neighborhood Weather Data

A team of UT Professors is researching how climate affects people on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Kelsey Ellis, assistant professor of geography, teamed up with Jon Hathaway, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor of social work, to collect weather data from urban Knoxville neighborhoods in order to create a more informed public and to improve future city planning. They placed ten weather sensors to power poles in July 2014 in Lonsdale, Burlington, West Hills, Vestal, downtown Gay Street, and Ijams Nature Center, that capture temperature, humidity, air pollution, and wind data. Over the past year, students took care of the sensors and collected data using thumb drives. The team is currently analyzing the data.

Trees are a large focus of the project, as they are known to boost air quality, provide shade, and keep neighborhoods cool. Poorer neighborhoods usually have less vegetation so residents are exposed to more extreme heat compared to other, more affluent, areas. Accessing and assessing data on a smaller scale will enable residents to have more accurate information as well as enable city planners to see what works and what doesn’t, and where changes need to be made. “Often data access only happens at the city level, so all residents would typically use information coming from the airport,” Ellis said. “Neighborhood-specific information will highlight the differences within the city, identify potential vulnerability issues, and provide city leaders a mechanism for improving these conditions.”

The information is useful on more than just a city planning level. They hope to create an app or website for residents to share this data with the public as well. Residents will be able to check heat indexes, air pollution, and temperature information specific to their neighborhoods. They’ll be able to make better informed decisions on when it’s safe for their children to play outside, when they should cut the grass, how to manage their gardens, etc.

Preliminary data shows that downtown Knoxville and neighborhoods with less tree cover were warmer than any other part of town. It also reveals that while trees kept neighborhoods cooler during the day, they didn’t cool neighborhoods at night as expected because of black ground surfaces that absorbed heat. Students also conducted interviews with residents of some of these neighborhoods to explore perceptions of neighborhood environmental conditions and how they are experienced or impact people’s everyday lives. Mason said that in the neighborhoods they interviewed “green space was valued and connected to different aspects of well-being.”

The first two years of the project have been funded by UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE). The team has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to expand their work – potentially nationwide. They are working on the app and website, and building a second generation of sensors that hopes to collect noise pollution data as well. They aim to do more than other microclimate studies that came before them by applying their results. Ellis emphasizes, “We want to help improve conditions in more vulnerable neighborhoods and inform residents of their potential risk and what they should do about it.”

For more information, check out TN Today’s article, or contact Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,

Arbor Day Tree Planting

Associate Vice Chancellor, Dave Irvin, and UT Arborist, Sam Adams, plant a ceremonial tree to kick off the tree planting on Friday, March 4, 2016 - TN State Arbor Day.

This past Friday, March 4th, was Arbor Day Tree Planting! We worked with UT Knoxville’s Facilities Services Stormwater Management, Landscape Services Arboriculture, and Recycling to gather over 70 volunteers and plant approximately 1000 trees along the Second Creek Greenway.

But wait – isn’t Arbor Day in April? Or wasn’t there something we did in November? Well, you’re right. Here in Knoxville, TN, USA – we celebrate three: city, state, and national. The City of Knoxville’s Arbor Day falls on the first Friday in November (you can see how we celebrated it this past year here). The State of Tennessee’s Arbor Day falls on the first Friday of March (which we rang in with our Tree Planting!). The one you might be more familiar with is National Arbor Day, which falls on the last Friday of April (this year’s will fall on April 29th).

Arbor Day in the US dates back to 1872 when the first Arbor Day was celebrated on April 10th in Nebraska, which had been treeless before the efforts of J. Sterling Morton. The dates might seem arbitrary as they are so widespread through the calendar year, but they reflect the best planting times for the region. Spring may be a popular planting season (March works well for planting saplings in our region, for example), but fall is the best time to plant here in Knoxville. Regardless, the more trees, the merrier. We like to remember this Chinese Proverb when prepping for tree plantings: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

The trees we planted this past weekend are an integral part of the greater Second Creek Riparian Restoration Project that is ongoing. The project aims to clear out invasive species along the banks of the creek and replace them with native species that will thrive in the area. The banks of Second Creek have seen a lot of damage thanks to invasive species, whose shallow root systems simply can’t keep up with stormwater erosion. The native species, with their deeper roots, will be more efficient in stabilizing banks and improving water quality in this creek as well as the other streams and rivers in the area. Not to mention the other benefits that these trees will provide by way of air quality, shade, and carbon sequestration.

For more information on Arbor Day Tree Planting, check out TN Today’s article.

9 Ways to Make Pink Green!

Valentine’s Day 2016 is coming tomorrow whether you like it or not. According to a report conducted by CNN, Americans spend about $18.6 billion on Valentine’s Day on average. Save some money and celebrate your loved ones green this year by taking our advice!

  1. When purchasing flowers, try to purchase organic and locally grown flowers.
  2. Buy cards from recycled or treeless paper. They can be found just about anywhere cards are sold and will specify on the label.
  3. Instead of a physical card, think E-Card! You can personalize them, make them funny, and send them to whomever you want without paying for postage (Earth friendly and wallet friendly).
  4. Instead of going out to eat, perhaps a homemade dinner consisting of locally grown and/or organic ingredients.
  5. Chocolate is a crowd favorite, but the industry faces a lot of critics with accusations regarding child labor and farming that depletes more than it replenishes. Fear not, there are plenty of eco-friendly and organic chocolate options out there, so you can still get some sweets for your sweet.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a homemade gift. Use your talents! Paint a picture, write a song or a poem, something from the heart.
  7. Make a donation to a charity or organization they support in their name. Or “adopt” a pet and donate to a sanctuary.
  8. Massages, facial or full spa day, the perfect gift for your hardworking companion.
  9. Enjoy your weekend, in the wild! If weather permits, a hike or a camping trip is a great way to bond with each other and nature.

There are many ways to enjoy this romantic day while keeping the planet and all who live here in mind.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Environmental Leadership Awards

Each year, the Office of Sustainability celebrates environmental leadership in the UT community through the Environmental Leadership Awards. We look to recognize one student, one faculty, one staff , and one community member/organization. Nominations will be accepted through the online form, and will close on 5:00 PM on Tuesday, March 29th. The Committee on the Campus Environment (CCE) will review and vote on these nominations at their April meeting, and the awards will be presented at the Environmental Leadership Awards Luncheon on Earth Day, Friday, April 22nd, from 11 AM to 1 PM at the UT Gardens.


If you have any questions on the awards, the luncheon, or any other Earth Month festivities, feel free to contact Sarah Cherry via email at

Claxton Rain Garden and Green Infrastructure at UT Knoxville

The Claxton Rain Garden, located behind the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, was finished this past semester.  A 3500 square foot space filled with approximately 2150 plants, the multi-functional garden will be a dynamic space throughout the year.  Drifts of native trees, shrubs and perennials attract wildlife and provide an artful display of color and texture throughout the year, while swirling river rock and evergreens anchor the project for year-round color and interest.

The rain garden at Claxton was one of several campus projects planned and executed this year through the Green Infrastructure Project, a collaborative effort between a number of departments from UT Knoxville and UT Institute of Agriculture.  The project team is made up of faculty and staff from Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science (BESS), Plant Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, TN Water Resources Research Center, Environmental Design Lab, and Facilities Services

The project is funded through a Green Development Grant from the State of Tennessee.  It was one of three to receive funding out of a pool of approximately 45 proposals that year.  This grant was matched by the Student Environmental Initiatives Fee (more commonly known as the Green Fee) to further the scope of the project.  Additionally, the project received further financial support from UT Extension, BESS, and the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

Exploring the performative potential of the campus landscape that are affected by urban stormwater runoff, the Green Infrastructure Project has transformed underutilized landscape fragments into multi-functional, aesthetically appealing spaces while providing experiential and service learning opportunities for students and enhancing water quality in and around campus.

In urban areas, stormwater runoff can be extremely dirty.  Rainwater travels over streets, sidewalks, construction sites, parking lots – picking up all sorts of pollutants along its way: antifreeze and oil from vehicles, pesticides and fertilizers from farms and lawns, bacteria and parasites from pet waste and trash, etc. Conventional gray infrastructure collects this runoff (and any contaminants it carries) in stormdrains and discharges it into local streams and rivers – for our campus, these local waterways include Second Creek, Third Creek, and the Tennessee River.

Rain gardens capture and filter polluted stormwater by design.  Plants that can handle the extremes of moisture and concentrations of nutrients are thoughtfully selected and composed to achieve stormwater management. On the surface, one encounters a striking garden that attracts pollinators and other wildlife, while under the surface is a complex soil ecosystem that filters runoff as it soaks into the ground, thus lowering the volume of stormwater flooding and polluting our waterways.

The Claxton Rain Garden and other rain gardens implemented by this project, like the BESS Rain Garden located on the UTIA Campus, serve as hands-on experiential and service learning opportunities for students from a variety of focus areas.  From designing the spaces to getting their hands dirty and bringing those designs to life, students were involved throughout the entire process.

Facilities Services also played a large role in the development and execution of the project.  Bringing expertise in landscape installation and stormwater management, as well as resources and manpower to the table, they were able to make this project more effective and help save time and money.

The Green Infrastructure Project team plans to implement more stormwater projects like these in the future, potentially at Melrose or Massey Hall.  As examples of multi-functional landscapes, these projects are intended to raise awareness and catalyze a dialogue around how green infrastructure can become an integral part of the future of our campus.  For more information on the Green Infrastructure Project, contact the Office of Sustainability at

Professional Development Opportunities

Occasionally we come across professional development opportunities that we just have to share.

These first two internship opportunities come to you from Second Nature, a Boston-based non-profit organization working to proactively build a sustainable and positive global future. They’re currently looking for candidates to fill two paid internship positions.

The Operations and Research Internship deals in a variety of tasks including data entry, research, and support for existing and future projects, etc. They’re looking for detail-oriented candidates who are familiar with higher education administration and interested in non-profit work. For more information and to apply, click here.

The Design and Communications Internship deals in a variety of tasks including graphic design, writing and content development, website maintenance, etc. They’re looking for creative candidates who are familiar with Adobe Creative Suite programs and are interested in finding creative solutions to problems. For more information and to apply, click here.

The third opportunity is a position with the Duke Campus Farm, a working farm in Durham, NC, dedicated to catalyzing positive change in the ways we grow, eat, and think about food.  They’re expanding their team to include a Production Manager.  The position will manage the one-acre growing space, train and supervise student crews, maintain crop and sales records, and collaborate with stakeholders on farm-based education projects.  They’re looking for a candidate with at least one full season of experience in farm management, in addition to teaching and programming experience (ideally in a farm setting).  For more information on the position and to apply, click here.

If you want to stay up to date on opportunities like these, sign up for The Green Leaf, our monthly newsletter.  It’s packed with news, events, and opportunities from the UT community and beyond.  Plus, we only send it out once a month – we promise we won’t flood your inbox!  To subscribe, fill in the form at the top right of this page.  To skim through some of our past newsletters, click here.

UT Knoxville Gets New Bike Racks

The University of Tennessee Knoxville’s students, faculty, and staff joined forces to increase the amount of bike racks on campus over the past year.

Dr. Chris Cherry set the initiative in motion to support the growing number of student bikers and to encourage a greener campus by supplying more spaces for cyclists to lock up their bikes.

Cherry, a professor of civil engineering at the university, and eight civil engineering seniors set to work at the beginning of the fall 2014 semester to help UT cyclists and pedestrians alike.  As a civil engineering professor, Cherry hoped to get his students engaged and eager about the project.  The idea was to fix and increase the bike racks on campus to keep up with the growing number of student cyclists and to maintain the campus’s aesthetics.

“When bike racks aren’t utilized effectively, cyclists will park willy-nilly,” Cherry observes.  The project enabled students to gain hands on experience in tackling a civil engineering problem.  They were able to take UT Knoxville’s bike problem and collect data in order to fix the problem of reckless parking with minimal assistance from UT Knoxville.

The initial concept of the project changed throughout the process:  there were some unexpected hindrances and it took a bit longer to complete than expected, but it’s all in the name of experience learning.  Projects like these provide realistic insight and experience for students as they put skills from the classroom to the test in real world applications.  Despite these challenges, the team was able to install 70 new bike racks throughout campus in just over a year.

This project was funded through the Student Environmental Initiatives Fee, more commonly known as the Green Fee – a fund started by students and paid for by students to support environmental stewardship and sustainability here at UT Knoxville.

For more information on this Green Fee project and others like it, go to or contact us here in the Office of Sustainability at

Produce with a Purpose

ABC’s popular show Shark Tank made a deal worth noting with a young man determined to help solve two problems with one innovative idea.

Evan Lutz, CEO and cofounder of Hungry Harvest, starts his pitch with a familiar scene: “When you’re walking down the grocery store aisle and you see all the apples lined up all shiny, perfect, same size, same color, same shape – you might wonder: how on earth do they grow the exact same way?” He goes on to drop the truth: “The fact is, they didn’t.”

Aimed at reducing food waste and food insecurity in the US, Hungry Harvest does so by embracing the “ugly” produce that gets turned away by supermarkets.

Fruits and vegetables that don’t look the part aren’t purchased by big supermarkets or local vendors, thus doomed to the fate of rotting in landfills where they go on to produce methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Lutz and his company have made it their mission to purchase this “ugly” produce at a discounted rate, package it in three sizes, and hand deliver it do subscribers for a low price. Prices for the standard recovered harvests run $15 a week for the smallest haul to $35 for the largest. Other packages are available as well, like organic harvests and all fruit harvests.

According to the USDA, food waste occupies the majority of space in municipal landfills in the US. This is food that is perfectly nutritious and delicious, but gets wasted due to superficial imperfections and mismanagement.

Since its beginning in 2014, Hungry Harvest has diverted over 300,000 pounds of produce from landfills and 100,000 pounds of that has been distributed to local households in need. With every bag of produce they deliver, the company donates a meal to a family in need.

Currently the company has about 500 subscribers in their service area centered around Baltimore and Washington DC, but they expect to double due to the publicity from being featured on Shark Tank. They plan to expand to more metropolitan areas (like NYC, Philly, Pittsburgh, and Richmond) in the near future as well, thanks to “Shark” Robert Herjavec, who invested $100,000 in the company in exchange for 10 percent equity.

In a world so superficial and focused on looks, sometimes even our food falls short. It’s important to remember the old saying: “it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.”

For more information on Hungry Harvest, check out their website. You can also watch the episode of Shark Tank, by following this link.