An international team of students attending the University of Michigan (UM) in the United States has developed a solution to help a company working to increase gender equity and standards of living in Uganda adopt a more sustainable model for manufacturing sanitary pads out of papyrus, and their efforts recently earned them 3rd place and $5,000 in Wege Prize 2016, a global student design competition focused on the circular economy.

Organized by Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s (KCAD’s) Wege Center for Sustainable Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, Wege Prize challenges teams of undergraduate students from around the world to work across institutional and disciplinary boundaries, integrating their knowledge and perspectives to design a product, service, or business model that can function within and facilitate a paradigm shift toward a circular economy, an economic model in which resources and capital are regenerative.

  University of Michigan Sustainability Without Borders members Tochi Nwogu (left) and Brinda Yarlagadda (right) with their 3rd place trophies at the Wege Prize 2016 Awards

University of Michigan Sustainability Without Borders members Tochi Nwogu (left) and Brinda Yarlagadda (right) with their 3rd place trophies at the Wege Prize 2016 Awards

The UM team, known as University of Michigan Sustainability without Borders, includes members Linnan Cao of China, studying Civil Engineering in UM’s College of Engineering; Shayan Golafshani of the United States, studying Data Science in UM’s College of Literature, Arts, and Sciences; Nicholas Jansen of the United States, studying Program in the Environment in UM’s College of Literature, Arts, and Sciences; Tochi Nwogu of Nigeria, studying Civil Engineering in UM’s College of Engineering; and Brinda Yarlagadda of the United States, studying Environmental Engineering in UM’s College of Engineering. The team unveiled an insightful plan to help existing Ugandan company Technology for Tomorrow Ltd. (T4T) adopt a circular model for meeting the heating and electricity needs of its production facilities.

In Uganda, many communities lack access to menstrual hygiene products, which often results in girls and transgender youth missing classes each month or leaving school altogether upon reaching puberty, perpetuating ongoing gender disparities. T4T employs people in communities throughout Uganda to produce MakaPads, menstrual pads made from locally-sourced papyrus. This social enterprise offers jobs and income to impoverished communities while providing accessible hygiene products that can help young women and transgender people become better educated about their own health.

The five UM students determined that T4T could reduce waste and energy costs through biomass gasification of papyrus and paper waste materials.

  Yarlagadda presenting her team's solution at the Wege Prize 2016 Awards

Yarlagadda presenting her team's solution at the Wege Prize 2016 Awards

“Myself and a few of our other team members actually started the gasifier project last year when our faculty advisor at the University of Michigan connected with T4T, but it was mainly from an engineering point of view in terms of how we could build something like this. Through Wege Prize we really got a better understanding of why we were working on the project,” said Yarlagadda, who presented her team’s solution in the final stage of the competition. “The competition enabled us to take a step back and look at the larger social and economic systems that were involved in the project, and allowed us to completely reshape our idea.”

T4T’s MakaPad manufacturing plants currently use solar panels to meet their energy needs, but this halts production during the rainy season and on especially cloudy days. By devising a way for the company to generate supplemental energy from the plants’ manufacturing waste, University of Michigan Sustainability without Borders plans to pave the way for a circular system in which spent resources are upcycled to become assets for future growth and development.

Using biomass gasification, papyrus and paper waste would be upcycled into affordable and clean heat energy, providing a secondary energy source to complement the manufacturing plants’ existing solar arrays while reducing their overall waste output. The UM team designed a biomass gasifier that can be built out of commonly available components such as shipping barrels.

The papyrus waste goes through six stages in the biomass gasification process: drying, pyrolysis (heating the biomass to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen), combustion, tar cracking, reduction, and cooling and filtration. Ultimately, the output of the process is syngas, which can be burned for heat or used to generate electricity.

  Overview of the University of Michigan Sustainability Without Borders team's solution   (click to enlarge)

Overview of the University of Michigan Sustainability Without Borders team's solution (click to enlarge)

"Successful teams are the ones who can show proof of concept both technologically and economically. What I loved about Sustainability Without Borders was how far they advanced their ideas through the prototyping phase and demonstrated that waste can equal valuable resources in a renewable and cost effective way,” said judge Michael Werner, who works as a Green Chemistry and Restricted Substances Manager for Apple.

University of Michigan Sustainability without Borders has already begun connecting with T4T to put their solution into action. They plan to use the funds awarded in Wege Prize 2016 to finish building their gasifier prototype this summer, and next summer hope to travel to Uganda to help carry the implementation of their idea out in person.

“We want to do what T4T thinks is best for their vision, so in terms of scaling up we’ll be constantly talking with T4T and modifying our idea based on their needs,” said Yarlagadda.

Other winning solutions in Wege Prize 2016 included a solution that focuses on creating self-sustaining systems for developing countries that can foster employment, improve sanitation and hygiene, enhance the livability of urban environments, and improve the overall health of communities; and a solution that focuses on creating an on-site waste treatment system for hospitals that minimizes environmental impact while maximizing the ability of the system to recover resources. Complete info on the winners of Wege Prize 2016 can be found here.

Thanks to the generous support of The Wege Foundation, which recently awarded $444,000 in grant funding to KCAD’s Wege Center for Sustainable Design to continue running the competition for the next four years, Wege Prize 2017 will be open to any undergraduate student in the world, and will again be focused on the circular economy.

Team registration will open in August 2016, but those interested in participating are encouraged to begin building their teams and brainstorming ideas now. Educators and other professionals who are interested in contributing their expertise are encouraged to contact wicked@wegeprize.org for more information.

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