Story by Kit Aldridge
What city wouldn't be pleased with around $1 million in extra earnings for the year? Thanks to a team of Oregon MBA students, the city of Salem, Oregon, enjoyed just such a financial bump.
It all started back in 2010, when students in associate professor of management Jennifer Howard-Grenville's Industrial Ecology course spent a term working with Salem as part of the University of Oregon's internationally regarded Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI).
One group of students from the college's Center for Sustainable Business Practices set out to examine whether Salem's Willow Lake Water Pollution Control Facility could begin using the excess capacity of its onsite biodigester--a unit that transforms waste sludge into methane gas and fertilizer for nonfood crops.
Could Willow Lake begin accepting sludge from area businesses and nearby towns? Using Salem-based biofuel manufacturer SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel as a test case, the students determined that the answer was yes.
Though ironing out the practical details took some time, the expanded service is now up and running. Sequential was just the first to begin bringing its sludge to Willow Lake. The facility now receives tipping fees for processing waste from Riverbend Landfill, Coffin Butte Landfill, City of Wilsonville, and the City of Silverton.
"We continue to add new revenue sources," said Greg Eyerly, Salem's wastewater treatment manager. "We are going to start bringing the City of Aurora's waste sludge here in mid-March, and we have three other sources on deck."
"The students' consulting work helped us start thinking differently about using the plant's excess capacity," said Courtney Knox Busch, project manager in Salem's department of urban development.
"The student involvement through SCI was really the catalyst," said Eyerly. "Not knowing what was possible, the students didn't know all the technical details of why we can't. Instead, they just asked the simple question 'why not?' If we keep asking the question 'why not?' we eventually run out of reasons of why we can't--and when we're out of 'can'ts' we are only left with 'cans.' It's just that simple."