From food waste to biogas: How Lasallians won climate tilt ‘Code Green’

By embracing innovative waste management technologies, Filipinos can reduce their food waste, meet energy demands, and transition toward a circular economy.

Last March 16, Ralph Stephen Saavedra (IV, BS-AEF), Alexia Roman (IV, AB-OCM), and Fernando Magallanes (IV, MEM-MRE) emerged victorious in Code Green for Campuses, a pitch competition launched by clean energy provider First Gen Corporation. Their team, named “Lumbricina,” represented DLSU and faced off against representatives from 28 other universities. Despite the pressure and expectations foisted upon them, the students showcased their domination with their award-winning proposal of converting organic waste into biogas that harnesses the processes of anaerobic digestion, which led them to bag the top prize in the competition.

A timely opportunity

Code Green challenged students to develop exceptional and innovative solutions to curb their university’s carbon footprint. Participants were to respond to the prompt, “Given climate change, schools and universities are encouraged to look for ways to limit their carbon footprint. With this in mind, what innovative solutions and programs can you develop to manage, if not limit, your school’s current carbon footprint?”

For the trio, the answer lies in addressing DLSU’s food waste. “Plastics aren’t the main source of solid waste in the country. It’s actually food waste,” says Roman. The cafeterias at St. La Salle Hall, Br. Andrew Gonzalez Hall, and Enrique M. Razon Sports Center collectively generate approximately 28,000 kilograms of food waste annually. Coupled with improper waste disposal, this could increase the amount of trash in landfills and contribute to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Saavedra, this problem could be attributed to the amount of leftover food. “There are many parts of food that you don’t usually consume,” he explains, such as fruit and vegetable peels. “And that’s the main composition of kitchen organic waste in the DLSU’s cafeterias.”

Taking note of this, the students found a way to convert organic waste into renewable fuel in the form of biogas. This became the basis of their winning proposal, which harnesses the process of anaerobic digestion, wherein bacteria is used to break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen. This process produces methane-based biogas, which is also a major component of non-renewable natural gas used as fuel for various machines and electricity generation. Apart from biogas, the process may also result in compost that can be used for DLSU’s gardens.   

Magnifying Lumbricina

The team has been developing this idea since their freshman years. Saavedra and Magallanes first proposed it during the annual DLSU Hult Prize Competition back in 2020. Known as the “Nobel Prize for Students,” the competition encourages participants to form social enterprises that address social issues. While the pair had already placed second in the event, they still decided to expand their project into a business. “We were looking for fellow co-founders, basically, and that’s where Alex (Roman) came in,” Saavedra narrates.

Roman was still majoring in manufacturing engineering at the time, so the pair decided to recruit her for her engineering knowledge. Together with Saavedra’s business acumen and Magallanes’ understanding of product design, the team optimized and improved their prototype. To meet the requirements of Code Green, they tweaked their startup so that it focused more on DLSU, in addition to conducting several feasibility, implementation, and cost-benefit analyses within the campus. 

Afterward, they created a digital model of their plans. It stipulates that their anaerobic digester system should be placed near cafeterias’ liquefied petroleum gas room so that it can easily be integrated into the campus’ gas network. Organic waste can then be inserted through one side of their prototype, which is derived from InSinkErator, a garbage disposal system with a shredder. The waste will then be anaerobically digested in an intermediate bulk container and stored in a gas storage tank as biogas.  

Dauntless passion

Despite the promise their prototype showed, the team still had to overcome numerous challenges to win. As students, they had limited resources to develop a functional prototype. “We asked permission if we could check out the floor plan [of the cafeterias],” Saavedra elaborates. “And while doing that, we…segregated their kitchen waste so that we could calculate how much is their daily kitchen organic waste generation. And then from there, we made estimates for the whole year.”

Apart from this, the team also studied past competitions to prepare for the judges’ potential inquiries. From his experiences in competitions, Saavedra notes that the team whose project that can attract and assure feasibility and confidence with the judges the most is the one that wins. To achieve this, he stresses the importance of having a proof of concept. Without it, it would have been difficult to convince the judges that their project was feasible and effective.  

While the competition can be grueling, the team still picked up many insights from the event and the other participants. Being adaptable and conducting thorough market research, in particular, allowed them to stay ahead of their competitors. “Everyone has great ideas. [It] is more of like the execution and how they want to put it out there, so, with that, we try to learn from them din, like from their mistakes and what they did right,” Roman asserts. 

Scaling the business

As a reward for winning Code Green, the team was given P1 million to turn their project into a reality. They plan to implement their proposal at the Manila Campus while conducting further research and development at the Laguna Campus, as the latter has more space and advanced instruments than the former. 

As they work to legitimize their business, the team continually builds on the momentum they received from the competition. “We are talking to actual restaurants right now which have interest with the product,” Roman shares. The trio is also recruiting more students who can help carry out their project. In the long run, they hope to tap into other industries that may use their biogas, such as the energy and agricultural sectors. By engaging with their stakeholders, they believe that they can build a more sustainable future.  

Bret Cornelia

By Bret Cornelia

Ivan Gabriel Pilien

By Ivan Gabriel Pilien

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