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Buckeye looks for sustainability in landfills

April 19, 2019

This scholarship winner is using his prize to search for lasting ways to reduce trash.

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Ohio State President's Prize honoree Zac Graber at Waterman Lab

Ohio State 2018 President's Prize honoree Zac Graber is working on a project to cut central Ohio’s landfill stream in half through minimizing organic waste contributions.

Zac Graber has no problem getting his hands dirty.

Following his December graduation, the 2018 President’s Prize winner spent the majority of his winter in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, at the Sevier Solid Waste facility, which diverts 70 percent of the area’s entire waste stream into composting and recycling.

President’s Prize

The President’s Prize is awarded each year to two graduating seniors who are committed to projects designed to bring social change. The award includes a $50,000 living stipend, up to $50,000 in startup funding and the opportunity to work with experts from Ohio State and around the world.

Read moreabout President's Prize

Graber — who majored in marketing at Fisher College of Business — was learning how the facility operates and devising his own plans to work compost into the soil at Ohio State’s Waterman Agricultural Natural Resources Laboratory, where he will plant soybeans and corn in test plots.

The goal is to test whether the compost is viable for Ohio farmers, either by improving crop yields or soil health. It’s the first step in Graber’s ambitious, long-term project to cut central Ohio’s landfill stream in half through minimizing organic waste contributions.

“Waste management is something that has to get solved,” he said. “I want to build something that helps improve society for everyone.”

Graber recently shared an update on how is project is progressing.

What does the next year look like for this project?

While the crops are growing at Waterman, I’m going to continue researching how to scale up a facility like Sevier for a city five times bigger, like Columbus. I’m also planning to go to California — there’s a lot of counties doing interesting things around waste management out there. There’s a couple cities in Europe I’d also like to go to because of what they’re doing.

Anything with waste management, anything with municipality work in general is expensive and it’s going to be taxpayer paid. So I want to be sure I’m coming up with the best option. I feel like that doesn’t always happen with these kinds of projects.

Zac Graber is a recipient of the President's Prize, which was created by Ohio State President Michael V. Drake three years ago.

Ohio State's President's Prize was started by Ohio State President Michael V. Drake and provides two graduating seniors the connections and support they need to advance innovative ideas for change in their first year after graduation.

Why did you start with this facility in Tennessee?

It’s the only facility in the world that does this. They take all the waste stream and send it through digesters, sift out the residue material so only the organic matter is left to make the compost. If we can do that in Columbus, it would double the life of our landfill.

But we have to be able to use it for corn and soybeans or all that compost will just end up back in the landfill. So if the tests show subpar results, or we can’t convince farmers it’s good to use, then we know this solution is out the door and we go back to the drawing board.

It’s not a failure; we’ll just need to find another solution. 

When did you start thinking about this project for the President’s Prize?

It’s something I had earmarked since my freshman year. I loved that the university was doing it. It motivated me to find a research avenue that would fall under this umbrella. Sustainability was always my main interest so it was a happy accident that President Drake has the same goals and mission I do. 

How is Ohio State helping you follow through on your ambitious vision?

Ohio State is showing they truly believe in their goals as a research institution and their goal of furthering the Columbus community and society on the whole.

All the research I did leading up to this was great, finding a potential solution. But without being able to test it, it’s just this possibility. It would have been all this research for nothing. That’s a big problem in the world now — we have all this knowledge and research but we need to apply it.

You need money and time to find out if your research is actually a solution. That’s what the President’s Prize is affording me. 

Beyond the President’s Prize, why was Ohio State the right place for you?

The biggest benefit was the connections: all the professors I got to meet who are very helpful, all the students I got to meet in all the different disciplines. There are so many people with so many different [areas of] expertise, and they can help you with a specific detail you’re looking for.

How broad Ohio State is and how it has an expert in almost anything you need to know about is a major benefit. And how it’s located in Columbus in a burgeoning startup community, it’s just invaluable.