KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the last several decades, people around the world have adjusted to the concept of recycling — reusing materials to cut down waste and the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet. Many environmentalists believe the next everyday adjustment will be composting, and a new lab at Western Michigan University is leading the way.
The WMU Pilot Plants lab on the Parkview campus already runs tests for several companies to see how well their paper products break down in the recycling process. WMU Pilot Plants general manager Lon Pschigoda says another logical step for waste reduction should be composting — both food and non-recyclable products.
“Nearly 40% of our food in the U.S. is wasted. A lot of that goes into landfills. About 25% of what’s in our landfills is food,” Pschigoda told News 8. “So, this is a huge thing that we can do to get that food out of our landfills where it converts into methane and get it into a compost cycle where it converts into clean soil and carbon dioxide.”
Because of a lack of oxygen, food packed into a landfill is converted into methane instead of carbon dioxide. Yes, carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse gas, but far weaker than methane. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane traps 25 times more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Compost cycles include oxygen, breaking the food waste down into nutrient-filled soil while releasing carbon dioxide. So, what about the tainted paper products that can’t be recycled? If made with the right materials, those can also be composted.
Enter Ph.D. candidate Jason Wang.
“Currently, most of the full-service paper packaging like coffee cups, grocery bags, stuff like that. They’re not suitable for the carbon recycling process because after they’re used, they get contaminated with food residue. However, they are good for making compost mixed with food waste, yard trimmings and stuff like that,” Wang said.
Wang has constructed a new lab to test how well certain fibers break down in the composting process. The goal is to find a product that will break down by at least 90% and translate to a higher nutrient count in the soil.
The lab includes a greenhouse where plants are grown in a tightly controlled environment, including the ideal temperature, lighting and moisture content. Some plants are grown in regular soil, while others are grown with a mixture of soil and compost material.
From there, the plants are dried and then measured for carbon dioxide output.
Currently, Wang and Pschigoda are working through the application phase with the Biodegradable Products Institute to be certified as a composting testing facility. With that certification, they can work with other companies to test their products and provide the BPI seal to market the most environmentally friendly products.
There are currently only three other BPI-certified labs in North America. But none of them have the automated carbon testing process that Wang has built.
“Jason is very modest,” Pschigoda said. “This is a super unique setup. He put a lot of time and effort into this.”
The computer program saves lots of time and manhours.
“This gives all the data, but without the (program), I would have to enter it manually and record it on my own curve. You can see the process. It’s a very time-consuming process,” Wang said.
Wang is expected to defend his Ph.D. dissertation later this year. Pschigoda hopes to hire him on as staff and continue their work.