Sustainability attracts international tour to Rapid City | Local

Western Dakota Tech and EchoWorks gained international attention on Friday when representatives from seven Central and South American countries visited to learn about sustainability initiatives they could implement in their nations.

The visit was part of the International Visitor Leadership Program. The IVLP representatives are on a four-stop tour that includes Rapid City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

IVLP is a program within the U.S. State Department. A goal for this tour is to show how collaborative efforts between public, private, academic and community groups are developing environmental resilience, biodiversity and economic growth.

While at WDT, the group received guided tours of three labs, a geothermal greenhouse under construction, and the EchoWorks program that is part of Black Hills Works.

“The IVLP visitors are all people doing this kind of sustainability work or they’re in university settings where they’re dealing with this kind of work,” said Tamie Hopp, director of philanthropy for the Black Hills Works Foundation. “I really see this to be such a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge on sustainability initiatives and best practices, and what they’re doing in these countries certainly mirrors what we’re doing to some degree.”

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Friday’s tour was the largest international group WDT has hosted to date that’s specifically focused on sustainability, according to Bryan Mitchell, program director for WDT’s Electrical Trades program and co-program director for the Controlled Environment Ag program.

“We want to have WDT be Rapid City’s face for sustainability efforts in our region,” Mitchell said. The group toured WDT’s three sustainable food production labs, which together use plant-based and aquaponics — fish and plants — systems to produce food.

“We created a food production system that could run independent of any human involvement,” Mitchell said. “One of our main focuses has been food security and sustainability. We grow a pretty good amount of food here on campus and we donate that to Fork Real downtown. We’re really working on teaching students the mindset of being sustainable.”

“A lot of the work we’re doing … is because it’s the right thing to do for our future,” he said.

The IVLP tour also visited WDT’s geothermal greenhouse, which is being engineered to counter the temperature fluctuations in Rapid City by creating a consistent temperature for raising food. When complete, Mitchell said the goal of the greenhouse is to grow citrus fruit in the dead of winter in an environmentally controlled atmosphere for a cost of about 12 cents a day.

Several WDT programs address sustainability and conservation, including farm and ranch management, environmental engineering, and controlled environment agriculture. EchoWorks is an electronic recycling program that was created through a partnership with WDT and Black Hills Works. It employs two people who have disabilities.

“We’re really leading the way in our community while recycling electronics and providing employment for people with disabilities, while also taking literally tons of electronics out of our landfill,” Hopp said. “Every country has electronics they’re trying to use in a sustainable way. Electronic waste is one of the fastest-growing problems.”

EchoWorks has recycled more than 120,000 pounds of electronics since its launch in January 2019. It received a 2021 Rapid City Sustainability Award and was a named 2020 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education for its collaboration with WDT.

In addition to providing space on campus for EchoWorks’ operations, WDT’s trucking department hauls the processed electronics to certified recycling facility in Wisconsin. That gives students essential on-the-job training while assisting EchoWorks.

Hopp praised local support for EchoWorks and electronic recycling.

“Our community has been so responsive to the opportunity to not just throw away computers and cell phones. They’ve been willing to pay a small fee to make sure the electronics don’t end up in a landfill. We have about 45 businesses that have trusted us to recycle their electronics, too. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t have community buy-in and participation,” Hopp said.

Friday’s tour concluded with a meeting of the IVLF representatives and members of the Rapid City Sustainability Committee.

“We are looking forward to welcoming these leaders and appreciate their interest in sustainability initiatives from across the globe to Rapid City,” said Mike Richardson, executive director of the Dakota Territory IVLP, ahead of Friday’s tour. “We’re eager to learn from them and share our knowledge on sustainability best practices. Western Dakota Technical College, EchoWorks, and the Rapid City Sustainability Committee, are all leaders in this area.”

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