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Since 2017, Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have been managing an internship program that helps companies in Oregon conserve water and energy, keep waste out of landfills and waterways, and save money.

Under the Oregon Applied Sustainability Experience program, current and recent college students in Oregon are matched with businesses and receive $6,700 thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution prevention grants and some of the host companies.

The interns spend their summers up to their elbows in spreadsheets, crunching numbers and calculating chemical usage, carbon emissions and energy savings. They interview employees, study the lifecycles of products, and tour their hosts’ manufacturing and processing facilities. At the end of 10 weeks, they offer recommendations for ways to prevent pollution and reduce waste, and they tally up what that could mean for the environment and the companies’ pocketbooks.

Forty-three interns were placed with 35 businesses between 2017 and 2022. If the businesses implement the interns’ recommendations, then together the companies could save $6.7 million a year and reduce water use by nearly 120 million gallons annually, said Lisa Cox, a toxics reduction analyst at the DEQ. Each year, the recommendations could also prevent 317,000 pounds of pollution from being discharged into water, nearly 400,000 pounds of solid waste from being discarded, and 86,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted, she said. She added that the suggestions could result in 571,000 fewer pounds of waste that’s currently considered hazardous each year; that’s because less would be produced and some would be reclassified as nonhazardous.

Justin Dickey, who was one of six interns in 2023, calculated that each year Bob’s Red Mill, for example, could save $3.7 million, reduce solid waste by 114,000 pounds, and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1,800 metric tons by, among other actions, calibrating machinery that was unintentionally discharging food onto sealed bags.

The businesses and environment aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program, which aligns with Oregon Sea Grant’s focus on workforce development and resilient communities and economies. The interns gain valuable skills, add awards to their resumes, and parlay their experiences into jobs. For example, Tofurky intern Katherine Gwynn was named student of the year by the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable for creating a plan to reduce energy and water use. And Alan Haynes was recognized by the EPA for helping Widmer Brothers Brewing reduce the processed grain and yeast in its wastewater.

As her internship at Boeing came to an end, Tiffany Trinh reflected on what she learned, which included soft skills. “I learned to always be prepared. This includes conducting research on topics before meetings and preparing questions to ask,” she wrote. “I also learned to optimize my time with peers to get the most out of every interaction. Being able to network with Boeing engineers has been monumental. I am more certain now that I want to become a process engineer, taking on sustainability projects and improving processes.”

Inspired by the success of the internship program, the Washington Department of Ecology and Washington Sea Grant replicated it in 2022.

Text current as of January 2024. Written by Tiffany Woods.