2861 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 (Room 247) sustainablesystemsresearch@gmail.com 831.708.5836


Learn more about the work we do!

“well-designed, scalable, and sustainable systems”

SSRF conducts and provides support for collaborative projects with public, private, and non-governmental NGO sectors, regional institutions of secondary and higher education, and businesses who deliver sustainability-related services and goods. SSRF’s primary geographic focus is the Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay region of California. Scroll down or use the quick access links below to learn more about our past and ongoing projects.

Pilot Waste Audit Project (PWAP)

The PWAP is the first step in our “Waste Not, Want Not” program, a new initiative to work with the University of California and the City and County of Santa Cruz to address the region’s looming waste management crisis. To learn more about this and other initiatives, please visit the Programs page.

SSRF is collaborating with the UCSC Resource Recovery Unit (RRU) on PWAP, a 12-week pilot project that relies on audits of the recycling bin contents at two UCSC Colleges. RRU is planning to test changes to services, signage, and education to improve waste stream characterization, diversion rates and overall recycling processes at these bin sites and will audit “before” and “after” contents of the bins. The results of this pilot will be used to influence and ensure the maximum effectiveness of implementation of educational consciousness raising efforts including instructional signage and the UCSC RRU overall goals and services in support of the UC Zero Waste commitment.

PWAP has the following goals:

  1. Develop a methodology for characterizing the contents of the current UCSC “recycling” program in order to determine what fraction can feasibly be recycled;
  2. Assess whether the contents of the audited bins have levels of contaminants low enough to be accepted for recycling at the Materials Recycling Facility at Dimeo Lane; thereby testing the response to education efforts aimed at lowering contaminated recyclables.
  3. Identify the problem materials in the recycling bins; using that knowledge to develop educational materials and signage aimed at raising awareness of the issues and influencing behavior modification.
  4. Develop some source reduction strategies to reduce wastes and to separate acceptable from unacceptable recyclables.
  5. Successfully Modify students’ waste disposal behaviors and practices through raising awareness and prompting.

PWAP has the following objectives:

  1. Provide participants with instruction in basic health and safety training, recycling principles and practices, life cycle analysis and source reduction strategies, auditing techniques and skills, data analysis and modelling, and report preparation.
  2. Educate participants about the “larger picture” of waste management at UCSC;
  3. Conduct twice-weekly waste characterization audits of at least two recycling bins at the two college sites;
  4. Conduct two weeks of such audits prior to the service changes, and four weeks of audits after the service changes begin;
  5. Collect and compile data in order to assess the effectiveness of the service changes; and
  6. Prepare a final report on results and recommendations for fall roll-out, and proposals for materials source reduction to reduce recycling and waste volumes.

The PWAP was launched at the beginning of April, with a team of four UCSC students. These students received class credit through the Rachel Carson Sustainability Internship courses taught by Susan Watrous as well as independent study courses sponsored by UCSC faculty. The baseline audits, whose data will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of new signage and service changes, are currently underway. The final report is available here.

Solar Equipment Program

The City of Santa Cruz has generously donated hundreds of solar panels and dozens of inverters to SSRF. These panels previously powered the Santa Cruz Street Maintenance building. The city has decided to replace them with newer, more efficient models, but this equipment is still in great working condition. In partnership with local solar installers, we are offering this equipment to community members. All are welcome to apply, but we are currently prioritizing those who wish to use the equipment for charitable, educational, social business, or research purposes. If you are interested in exploring a collaboration with SSRF, please contact us.

Hydroponics Program

We have enough hydroponics equipment available to produce nearly 2 tons of food per year, and are offering this equipment to community members. We can also provide installation and training for applicants who are unfamiliar with hydroponic systems. All are welcome to apply, but we are currently prioritizing those who wish to use the equipment for charitable, educational, social business, or research purposes. If you are interested in exploring a collaboration with SSRF, please contact us.

Mushroom Composting

This project was initiated by UCSC undergraduates, in collaboration with mycology expert William Goss. Its purpose is to advance waste diversion by exploring the viability of training mycelium to grow on food-soiled cardboard, particularly pizza boxes, supplemented with coffee grounds to produce bioavailable fertilizer in the form of nutrient-rich mushroom compost.
It is estimated that 3 billion pizzas are sold in the United States every year. Undergraduate college students may be among the largest consumers for its affordability, late-night availability, variability, and convenience. No matter where you order the pizza from, it is delivered in a cardboard rectangular box every time. Despite various efforts and adjustments in packaging by pizza companies to reduce contamination, nearly all pizza boxes are soiled by grease and other food contaminants. This contamination happens at such high rates that even if a particular box has little or no contamination, most recycling facilities automatically divert the entire box to the landfill. Moreover, the presence of high amounts of food-soiled pizza boxes (and other contaminated recyclables) often leads to the contamination and rejection of entire loads of clean recyclable paper. Soiled cardboard boxes and paper are compostable and could be sequestered into Earth as soil carbon but are instead taking up limited landfill space, decomposing there and releasing harmful greenhouse gases like methane, which is thirty times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
In addition to diverting more waste away from the landfill, using this contaminated cardboard and paper to cultivate mycelium offers enormous benefits. Certain strains of fungi can be leveraged to produce edible mushrooms, plastic alternatives, or even medicinal fungal enzymes and metabolites. The compost generated can be used for farming and gardening, as well as rejuvenating soil to increase its capacity to hold water and act as an effective carbon sink.

This project has been broken down into the six following stages, and is currently in stage two.

Stage 1: Develop understanding of fundamental biological and technological processes involved in creating compost, cultivating fungi, other methods of diverting waste. Learn city ordinances and local government policy regarding composting facilities.
Stage 2: Conduct interviews of stakeholders in the city including the Waste Reduction program in the Public Works Department, Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility, campus community including sustainability and environmental organizations, students, and cafes; business sector such as different pizza companies and farms.
Stage 3: Install cardboard pizza box collection sites on campus, with educational signage. Install shed growing chamber at the Rachel Carson College Garden (RCCG), with educational signage. Process pizza cardboard boxes at RCCG Transfer various fungal strains into substrate, monitor growth patterns, and environmental factors. Assess quality of finished compost, use at various sites on campus, including gardens, farms, and landscapes.
Stage 4: Assess successes and challenges, use statistical modeling to demonstrate progress and efficiencies. Refine or redevelop systems processes based upon quantitative and qualitative feedback data.
Stage 5: Education and community outreach. Surveys project collaborators including volunteers, interns, community mentors, project advisors and supervisors. Summarize findings to present to various groups and organizations on and off campus. Highlight key stakeholders from the project.
Stage 6: Scaling up project, project diversification, grant writing, sponsorship, and fundraising. Redevelop primary project methodologies using complete information regarding timeline, inputs, outputs, processing and incubation time, identify community stakeholders. Secure funding through grant writing, corporate sponsorship, or city funding.

Sustainable Urban Farming Initiative (SUFI)

SUFI is an urban agriculture project run by Kevin Bell, UCSC faculty researcher and co-founder of SSRF. This project is part of the Rachel Carson College IDEASS program, which is a series of courses that offer experiential learning opportunities focused on sustainable practices. These courses are open to all UCSC students, and required for those in the Sustainability Studies minor.
Students participating in SUFI learn how to grow and harvest organic produce at wheelchair-accessible planter beds located on the CASFS farm on campus and manage a small hydroponic system that produces tomatoes and cucumbers. One of SUFI’s primary goals is to serve as a longitudinal study on the effectiveness of organic gardening, placing emphasis on space utilization, materials input, and crop yield. The idea is to accumulate data and develop best practices for producing the largest possible amounts of fresh organic produce with the smallest footprint, which will further urban farming efforts and facilitate local production of healthy food in urban areas


The Micropod is an experimental trailer-mounted structure meant to demonstrate space- and resource-saving building concepts and is inspired by net-zero energy tiny houses. While too small for comfortable long-term living, the roughly 70 sqft. structure includes a foldable work desk, bench seating, floor area for sleeping, outdoor-accessible kitchen counter with sink and stove, a small integrated greenhouse, and storage shelves. The Micropod has three solar panels and four batteries that power a DC circuit for lighting, water pressure, USB charging, and a Raspberry Pi smart system. The Micropod also has a separate AC circuit with 6 outlets that can power high-wattage tools and appliances.
The Micropod was constructed by UCSC students taught by Thomas Rettenwender, architect and board member of SSRF. It is currently located at Uvaosos Ranch in San Jose, a plot of undeveloped off-grid land with a rainwater catchment system. The Micropod will serve as a power supply, work shed, meeting space, and kitchen to facilitate the development of the land into a tiny house community, lavender farm, and orchard. It will also be used as an educational tool for students and community members who would like to learn more about green construction, space-saving techniques, and off-grid power systems.

Ecotopia House & Tiny Row House Project

The Ecotopia House is a “Tiny House,” a small living structure that offers a low-environmental impact model that is easily replicated. The structure will include zero-net energy construction and recycled materials, where possible, reducing carbon emissions from daily operation and from life-cycle energy expenditures. Among its other features, Ecotopia House will minimize embedded energy and carbon footprint as much as possible; include an integrated solar PV & thermal system for power, hot water, and heating, with a battery storage system, to achieve Zero Net Energy; reduce sewage waste with a composting toilet & graywater system; maximize daytime lighting with strategically-located windows & light pipes, and nighttime lighting with LEDs; and designed to be modular, capable of being easily assembled and disassembled, and storable in sections.

The planned followup to Ecotopia House is a “Tiny Row House,” a two-story structure of 600-800 square feet, built from “modules” tied together to create a single house. Several can be placed on a typical urban parcel, allowing homeowners to share land costs, renewable microgrids and garden space. Each unit will include two upstairs bedrooms, a downstairs living room (also usable as a bedroom), a kitchen and 1-1/2 bathrooms. The units will be designed to ADA specifications and will fit in with surrounding architecture and design.

The Tiny Row House project is oriented, in particular, to the opportunities and issues associated with designing and building high-performance, sustainable, low-cost infill housing that can be readily integrated into multiple neighborhoods across the region, sited in existing urban and suburban spaces that might otherwise remain vacant or unused. Moreover, no matter how good physical building designs and implementations may look on paper, they must include a critical component that ensures they will meet the needs of their target constituency and ensure stable, supportive, and vibrant mixed neighborhoods wherever these sites are located.

Ecotopia House is a collaborative project between the Rachel Carson College Sustainable Living Undergraduate Research Program (SLURP) and the Construction and Energy Management Program at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, California. It is currently in its very final stages of construction at the Cabrillo Watsonville campus, after which it will be available for use and viewing at UCSC, Cabrillo and elsewhere as an example of what can be done with careful design, smart technology and green materials and resources.