WASHINGTON—For bored or exhausted office workers, T.G.I.F. has only one translation — thank goodness it’s Friday and the weekend is just around the corner.
But the abbreviation has a totally different meaning in Westerly, R.I. There, a small group of motivated middle school students concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels has launched what they tout as "Project T.G.I.F.: Turning Grease Into Fuel."
Their monumental effort to collect waste cooking oil, refine it into biofuel and distribute it to charities in their hometown as a heating source merited recognition from the White House.
The team of creative sixth-graders earned a trip to the nation’s capital last week for winning a 2009 President’s Environmental Youth Award, a countrywide competition inaugurated in 1971. It’s a joint effort of the president and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the goal of recognizing youthful efforts to protect air, water, land, ecology and other resources.
During a Thursday ceremony in downtown Washington, the Rhode Islanders accepted their national award from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Participants had to beat out regional competitors to be eligible for one of the 10 national awards, representing each of EPA’s regional offices. The Rhode Island team is the winner from EPA Region 1 in the Northeast. Top finishers in the other nine EPA regions featured innovations focused on expanding alternative fuels, recycling, spurring environmental education, conserving caves and reducing trash in schools.
Regional EPA panels judged the projects based on environmental need, accomplishment of goals, long-term environmental benefits and positive impact on local communities. The panels also considered project design, coordination, implementation, innovation and soundness of approach.
"In all of your projects, I see our future," Jackson told the teams gathered at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. "What you’re doing is making our jobs easier [at EPA]."
In these days of seemingly endless environmental emergencies — the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico tops the list now — it’s refreshing to be around young people where the message is all about hope, she noted.
"My only request is that you continue to work hard," she concluded, praising the students for having the ability to detect and try to solve environmental problems. "That’s what we need today."
Jackson’s message resonated with Jason Lin, who accompanied his 12-year-old daughter, Cassandra, one of five members on the Rhode Island team. Lin’s 16-year-old son, Alex, serves as a team mentor.
Lin explained that he is eager to teach his children that a sense of community commitment extends beyond their own backyard in Westerly, a community of close to 18,000 in far southern Rhode Island adjacent to the Connecticut border.
That prompted him to steer his son and daughter toward the homegrown Westerly Innovations Network. Nicknamed WIN, the nonprofit initiative is geared for gifted and talented students who are taught to collaborate to solve problems and design service projects.
As fifth-graders, Cassandra and her fellow WIN teammates brainstormed the idea for T.G.I.F. after attending an energy expo at the University of Rhode Island.
Inspired, they then convinced their town council to become the first in the state to add a grease receptacle at the local transfer station so residents could donate their used cooking oil. After recruiting 60-plus restaurants to donate grease to the cause, the students tracked down a hauler who agreed to deliver the byproduct to a biodiesel refinery.
Thus far, T.G.I.F. has collected more than 36,000 gallons of waste oil. It is transformed into biodiesel and then mixed with low sulfur heating oil to create a product called Bioheat.
A newspaper article about families unable to afford heating oil prompted the students to talk to local charities, which have distributed 4,000 gallons of Bioheat locally.
"It gets really cold in Rhode Island," teammate Vanessa Bertsch said after the awards ceremony. "People need heat for their homes and this is a way we can help.”"
WIN’s intent is to keep its teams small and nimble so the workload is even and the kids have a chance to bond.
"This gives them a better idea of what it means to be part of the bigger world," the elder Lin explains. "While working on a project like this, and coming to Washington to see other students’ projects, they are not only building their knowledge but also their conscience."