Two University of Montana students are helping Missoula businesses become waste-free as part of a sustainability pitch competition. 

On April 11, the Davidson Honors College QUEST (Questions for Undergrads Exploring Special Topics) program held its second annual pitch night. The winner’s of this year’s competition were announced April 17. 

Students founded the program in the fall of 2018 as a way to positively impact the Missoula community by letting students apply their research skills. Each year, the program centers around a different theme or question and students work in teams to develop a solution. 

This year’s theme revolved around Missoula’s recently adopted Zero by Fifty plan, an initiative aimed at reducing 90 percent of Zoo Town waste by 2050.

Seniors Casey Brandon, 22, and Sierra Deimling, 21, partnered to create their winning project: The Zero by Fifty Pledge Program. 

“I have never worked so hard on anything in my life,” Deimling said. “Casey and I have been working on this for eight months and poured our hearts and souls into the project. We just really believe in it.”

Their project is centered around Missoula businesses, and will involve an annual waste audit from Energy Corps members working for the city. Energy Corps AmeriCorps is a national initiative to promote sustainable energy practices. 

A report will then be created to provide each business with unique analysis and three “sustainability goals” to accomplish. When the business does this, it will receive a pledge program window decal. The process will repeat each year, with the end goal of cultivating a zero-waste organization.

The inspiration for the project was a desire to find an all-encompassing solution, according to  Deimling.

 “We wanted to do something that could get going right away,” Deimling said. “Something that could show Missoulians what Zero by Fifty even is, because a lot of people haven’t even heard of the plan.”

Deimling said there is a big incentive for businesses in Missoula to join the program because their participation will lead to more business and support from the community. Missoula is a great place to jumpstart the program because the people care deeply about sustainability, she added. 

Noah Hill, who co-founded the QUEST program with UM alumni Reid Hensen, said he’s glad the program is gaining attention.

“I’ve been blown away both by the interest we’ve had within the DHC and within the community,” Hill said. “We had to modify our whole pitch night to be able to fit all the presentations into one event.”

He said it’s important for students to have access to resources that allow them to make change within their community, and he’s happy to showcase the skills UM students bring to the table.

“To be able to say, ‘Our students are helping our community, they’re filling a need in the city government,’ I think that’s amazing,” he said. “It develops awareness for the talent and energy that lives in the DHC and at UM.”

With their first-place finish, Deimling and Brandon each won a $1,000 scholarship and an internship to implement the project next fall.

“Change happens on a small scale, and we think that this program is going to start opening up people’s eyes to how doable it is to make small changes in your own life,” Diemling said.