Worming Their Way to a Solution

Ryerson Students Learn About Entrepreneurship as They Work to Better Our Planet

After discovering that 60 per cent of Ryerson’s landfill waste is organic material, environmental studies students Sarah Brigel and Jennifer Fischer decided to start a social venture called Microbe Hub through the Social Venture Zone at Ryerson. In the hopes of creating a healthier community, they are diverting waste by rerouting some of the university’s organic waste to a vermicompost (red-wriggler worms) farm which turns the organic matter into highly nutritious castings which can be sold as organic fertilizer.

Socially conscious examples like this can be seen across Ontario’s universities – from bans on the sale of bottled water to organic campus farms and bike repair stations – the 6th annual Going Greener report highlights numerous examples of the work being done on campuses to shrink their environmental footprint and create greener communities.

We interviewed Sarah and Jennifer to find out more about their specific project, their inspiration, their goals and what they’ve learned along the way.

So worm composting…how does that work?

Students weigh vermicompost organic wasteWe chose the worm composting farm because it’s that business piece of the Ryerson Social Venture Zone where we are able to make a profit and become self-sustaining into the future. The worms eat the organic materials that we collect from campus and, for free, they turn it into castings – a very valuable product on the urban agriculture market.

The hungry bins that are distributed through Green Tools are such an amazing demonstration of a natural functioning ecosystem. You put your inputs there, and you have your microbes and worms and mites and all the little pieces to the ecosystem, which process this food for you and then turn it into something that can be used again to grow food.

What inspired this idea?

It came out of our frustrations of not being able to responsibly dispose of our waste on campus. We were walking around in our second year and we saw that garbage cans were overflowing with coffee cups, pieces of paper, food boxes and bananas and apple cores – all of these items were recyclable or compostable. We realized there wasn’t actually a responsible composting system for students on the university campus and knew it was a totally feasible opportunity for students to partake in.

It’s a waste to put your organic materials in the landfill. When they decompose in the landfill they create methane, the leading contributor to greenhouse gases in an urban setting, which is increasing climate change. It’s also a waste of resources. When organic material decomposes in a compost setting you actually get a product out of it that can be reused.

What was the start-up process like?

We were incubated by the Social Venture Zone here at Ryerson – it’s an experiential learning hub for students who want to take a socially conscious project and turn it into a social enterprise. We were able to get some start-up funding and support and use the Ryerson Faculty of Arts as our pilot project to get this off the ground and to be able to test whether or not this was a feasible initiative on a university campus. We found that it was and we went from there.

Microhub volunteers stand beside vermicompost system with bucket of organic wasteHow does it feel to have taken this idea and brought it to life?

We feel really grateful that we’ve had this opportunity at Ryerson…to allow students to have the agency to start a project that takes up physical space, financial capital, and the time of the staff and faculty who engage in the project. As students we were given the opportunity to take an idea and to create a business out of it. We have had a lot of ups and downs, hurdles and learning opportunities that we wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere.

It’s incredibly rewarding to know that we are a piece of this puzzle – this is the time and the place to take on these initiatives – teaching our volunteers about castings and putting our hands in the worms. The organic materials that we are diverting could have ended up in the landfill and could have contributed to climate change. We are being part of the solution and the fact that you can touch it and it’s tangible and it’s alive, and you have this ecosystem in your hands…it’s the most magical experience.

How has Ryerson’s Social Venture Zone helped you in the process?

I don’t think Microbe Hub would be here if it wasn’t for the Ryerson Venture Zone. What it did for us besides providing the support, networks and space, was the validation. It legitimized what we were doing, helped make it possible. We had this great idea but we needed to turn this into an actual business plan, and ask: “How is this going to work?”, or “What happens when you graduate?” It challenged us to create a tangible, sustainable business.

Also just being in an environment with like-minded people who are thinking outside the box and are willing to take risks…others who see people in the planet before profit – it was inspiring, motivating and just a good place to have a sounding board for our ideas.

What are your next steps?

We’re growing. We have 12 team members now. We’re expanding to five other areas of campus, and we just received a new space on campus as well.Microbe Hub group shot

Expanding our pickup means that we are increasing our impact of waste diversion on campus. A space for workshops and learning opportunities for students means that we can have bigger conversations around sustainability, environmental stewardship and climate change. We’ll also be collaborating with different groups on campus who are taking steps toward a more sustainable campus so that sustainability can have a bigger presence on campus here at Ryerson.

Where would you like to see Microbe Hub five-seven years down the line?

We would love to see Microbe Hub move into a role where we can go into other institutions and show them how they can become more sustainable in their ways. And help to set up composting in places such as businesses, kitchens, schools and daycares.

What have you learned through this process?

This isn’t just a project. This is something really different. This experience has made us unique and has given us so many tools personally to move forward in our careers as entrepreneurs.

We learned about a lot of the problems in sustainability in our undergrad and how that works in the city but what’s really neat is to have been given the opportunity to actually create a real tangible project on the ground that is doing something positive from the knowledge that we’ve learned.

Vermicompost bucketWhy are initiatives like this so important – what’s the benefit to students, and more broadly, the world we live in?

We’re giving people the opportunity to participate in environmental sustainable stewardship and it’s a tangible action that they are taking. By choosing to put their organic materials into a compost bin rather than a landfill and connecting that to the bigger piece of environmental sustainability, they can see that their actions are part of the collective movement.

We are really fortunate to be in this culture where students can take on these initiatives and projects. There are also other students doing similar projects and whether it’s socially, or environmentally – together we are making a difference. All of these projects connect and collectively they have a ripple effect. Microbe Hub is just one piece and I think that through the Social Venture Zone’s other projects, we are all doing something that is positive for the world and for the planet.