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The Kids are Alright: Kennesha Garg and her Mangrove-Inspired Solution for a Greener Future

The Kids are Alright: Kennesha Garg and her Mangrove-Inspired Solution for a Greener Future

By Luke Carothers

Kennesha Garg is a high school senior in the San Francisco Bay Area who is demonstrating an extraordinary passion for researching the human impact on ecosystems and advocating for climate policies.  Kennesha has lived in both the United States and India, giving her a unique perspective on how different countries tackle climate problems in different ways.  With this unique perspective comes immense anxiety, Kennesha says, which “often led to nightmares and dire thoughts.”  Rather than living in continued fear of this understanding, she recognized from an early age that she had the power to do something about these issues.  Looking for somewhere to start affecting change, Kennesha quickly identified landfills as an area she could make a significant contribution.  In 2017, methane emissions from landfills represented 17 percent of total emissions in the United States.  This large contribution from landfills represents a significant hurdle in the push for a greener future.

Kennesha describes the problem with landfills as stemming from waste buried underground where there is no oxygen present.  A major byproduct of waste decomposing under a lack of oxygen is the production of methane gas.  Methane is a particularly harmful greenhouse gas as it is around 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.  In current landfill design, wells and pipes are installed horizontally and vertically to extract methane via motors.  Pointing to the large percentage of methane emissions in the United States, Kennesha describes current landfill architecture as “not efficient at all.”  She also adds that these poorly designed landfills, beyond having a significant impact on climate change, also cause many other problems for surrounding neighborhoods and wildlife.  Inefficient gas collection systems allow gasses to accumulate and remain trapped inside landfills, which can cause internal temperatures to rise.  As they do, fires and explosions are more likely to happen.  Furthermore, Kennesha points out that “particular matter and stench sourcing from landfills can also lead to health problems–such as asthma, cancer, and birth defects–in neighboring communities” as well as disrupting wildlife.

While there has been significant progress made in recent years regarding protecting the environment from landfills, Kennesha isn’t satisfied, believing there is still a long way to go to ensuring the ultimate goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and no disturbances to communities.  Thinking about these issues and the path to achieving these ultimate goals, Kennesha reflected on her time spent in India as a child where she first saw Pichavaram Mangroves for the first time.  She was captivated by their sight–tracing the sight of their “majestic, spread-out roots,” and held a sense of fascination and mystery with their shape.  Years later, after identifying landfills as a problem to solve, Kennesha came across the concept of biomimicry, which she explains as mimicking models from nature to address our problems.  After a little time applying this concept with other organisms to landfills, she soon remembered her fascination with mangrove trees and their roots.

Kennesha became curious about how mangroves functioned and thrived in wetlands.  Mangroves in wetlands often have roots underwater, which are susceptible to drying out because of a lack of oxygen.  To overcome this, mangrove roots have developed a pressurized tissue, called aerenchyma, that is used to transfer oxygen from the leaves to the roots.  Discovering this system allowed Kennesha to see the parallels between mangroves and landfills when it comes to transferring gasses.  This research led her to developing RootPipes, which is a piping system that mimics the shape of mangroves to reach more remote areas of the landfill.  The RootPipes system is designed to reach these remote areas where pockets of greenhouse gasses tend to be unreachable because of the landfill’s shape.  

With this idea in mind, Kennesha set about determining the optimal layout for the RootPipes system.  Her initial idea was to create a single, large RootPipe spanning across the landfill, but soon realized that “if one part broke, the entire pipe would be rendered useless, and repair costs would be significant.”  This realization led to “many other structural phases” for the RootPipes system before ultimately determining that retrofitting would be the best approach.  By attaching the Rootpipes system to the already-existing vertical wells, the design would be more decentralized and cost-friendly.  With feedback from landfill and sustainability experts, Kennesha began collecting data to prove the efficacy of the RootPipe system.  Using limited resources such as pipes sourced from Home Depot, Kennesha simulated smaller versions of two landfills: a traditional landfill and one outfitted with RootPipes.  The RootPipes prototype landfill was created using a 3D printer.  Kennesha installed the systems into two boxes and filled them with compostable waste before completely sealing them.  After six months of collecting data, her findings determined that RootPipes were significantly more efficient than the current landfill methane collection design.

While much of Kennesha’s work has been focused on landfills within the United States, she believes that the RootPipes system can ultimately have an impact on a global level.  She says, “the fact of the matter is, waste is produced everywhere–all over the world.  The long-term goal is to install my landfill system in the United States, India, and every country in between.  Therefore, the impact of this design can be global, and we can reduce emissions significantly as we move toward a sustainable future.”  Kennesha also believes that the RootPipes system can be extended to collecting methane and other gasses from compost piles, which will have a significant impact on waste management in the future.  Like the future for the impact of RootPipes, Kennesha’s future is decidedly bright.  After graduating high school, she intends to major in Environmental Engineering so that she can continue to build ingenious sustainable solutions and work with like-minded individuals who also care deeply for the planet.

Luke Carothers is the Editor of Civil + Structural Engineer Magazine. If you want us to cover your project or feature an article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.