Taking Classroom Lessons to the Streets

Taking Classroom Lessons to the Streets
Student Mike Fackler is sitting on a great idea.

Story, photos and videos by Kelli Trinoskey

Mike Fackler wants to save the world, one tomato at a time.

Fackler, a junior in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University, credits the innovative coursework in his Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability (EEDS) major as giving him the tools needed to understand how business works and how sustainability plays into its success.

He said the concepts he’s learned in the EEDS program, which is a joint effort by two CFAES units, the School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE), opened his eyes to the potential of a rotten tomato when others might simply pitch it in the trash.

A startup called compostd

Fackler came up with an idea to make it cheap and efficient for people to compost their food scraps. He and his business partner, Jared Frees, are starting a company called Compostd.

“Think Uber for food waste,” Fackler said. “The company will offer curbside pickup for residents and restaurants.”

Compostd, which he and Frees hope to launch in the next few months, is a web-based tech platform that will allow customers to notify drivers that the bins at their curbs are filled with discarded food scraps. Drivers would then get the bins and deliver them to centralized drop-off locations. From there, the bins would be transported to a processing facility.

People already working as ride-share drivers could easily do pick-ups in conjunction with their driving.

“There is a lot of down time for Uber and Lyft drivers in between rides,” said Fackler. “Drivers could pick up residents’ 5-gallon bucket liners, store them in their trunks in the 50-gallon bins we provide and deliver them when convenient.”

giving good green benefits 

Fackler’s research and completed case studies show there is a market for this service as farmers need high-quality compost and residents want to do their part to keep biodegradable material out of overcrowded landfills. 

“Companies are developing boutique blends of compost to meet growers’ needs,” said Fackler. “Also, better soil allows farmers to use less fertilizer.”

He adds that gardeners do most of the residential composting, but some residents might not feel equipped to manage a backyard compost pile.

“I’ve been in the food waste world for five years, and my parents only recently got into backyard composting in the last year,” said Fackler. “It is a daunting task.”

learning ‘worth its weight in gold’

Local fee-based programs, like the one offered by The Compost Exchange in Columbus, allow residents to exchange full buckets of food scraps for empty ones at local farmers markets, but they have to lug the buckets to and fro.

Fackler says that method puts the burden on residents and is why curbside pickup is appealing.

Neil Drobny, a faculty leader of EEDS, said figuring out innovative solutions to food waste is smart business. He said Fackler has built on his classroom knowledge through internships and work with food waste organizations.

“What he is learning is worth its weight in gold,” said Drobny, who also leads CFAES’ Sustainability Innovation Virtual Lab. “Whether you believe in environmentalism or not, sustainability is a real dollars-and-cents kind of initiative.”

Through the EEDS program, Drobny works with the next generation of leaders to instill an awareness of how to operate in a preventive mode when it comes to environmental issues, versus a fix-it mode, which can be more expensive and, in the final analysis, less effective.

teaching students ‘system thinking’

All EEDS students benefit from required internships and through their participation in a two-semester business immersion course that allows them to dive into a topic encompassing business and sustainability, Drobny said.

In classes, companies present their issues and problems to students. The students then work in groups to employ project management software that helps them track progress toward the end goal of presenting solutions to company leaders.

“The companies are amazed that the EEDS students share ideas and solutions they would never have thought of on their own,” said Drobny. “Our students can see the forest from the trees, and as a result, offer objective viewpoints through the lens of sustainability.”

EEDS coursework embraces “system thinking,” which focuses on how a system’s parts interrelate and work over time and in relation to larger systems.

“(EEDS) students can see the forest from the trees, and as a result, offer objective viewpoints through the lens of sustainability.”Neil Drobny

Fackler has applied this thinking in developing Compostd and in his work as president of the Food Recovery Network. He has expanded on the student organization’s mission of reducing food waste at Ohio State’s Columbus campus by taking extra food from university dining services and donating it to local food banks to feed students and community members.

Fackler soon realized that in order for the network to remain a self-sustaining organization and to have a large-scale impact on the campus food system, it had to stop making only occasional food recoveries.

“We had to create a system,” said Fackler.

They compiled a network of volunteers who use golf carts from the Ohio Union to pick up donated fresh foods and baked goods from campus dining locations and coffee shops. The food is then brought to one location and taken from campus to multiple food bank partners such as Star House, St. Sophia’s and Faith on 8th. During a typical week, volunteers pick up 100-200 pounds of food.

big jump in students in eeds

The EEDS major has grown significantly since its inception five years ago when it started with 25 enrolled in the program. It now boasts 220 students, Fackler being one of its most enthusiastic.

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It is a rare feat for a student to find an academic major that fits perfectly with his or her personal and professional goals, said AEDE Professor Brian Roe.

“Mike is willing to take his ideas, shape them with the concepts he learned in the classroom, and advance them into the world.”

Kelli Trinoskey is communication and outreach manager in CFAES’ Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics.