A Novel Method to Accelerate the Degradation Rate of Plant-based Tableware Using Compost Tea

Student: Sumuk Anand
Table: ENV3
Experimentation location: Home
Regulated Research (Form 1c): No
Project continuation (Form 7): No

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Borrelli, P., et al. (2020). Land use and climate change impacts on global soil erosion by water (2015-2070). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(36), 21994–22001. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2001403117


Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: Biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251–260. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2008.00310.x


Ingham, E. R. (2005). The Compost Tea Brewing Manual. Soil Foodweb Incorporated.


Kim, M. J., et al. (2015). Effect of aerated compost tea on the growth promotion of lettuce, soybean, and sweet corn in organic cultivation. The Plant Pathology Journal, 31(3), 259–268. https://doi.org/10.5423/ppj.oa.02.2015.0024


Kouyoumjian, R. (2007). Comparison of compost tea and biological fungicides for control of early blight in organic heirloom tomato production. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_theses/263/


Le Guern, Claire. “When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide.” Plastic Pollution, plastic-pollution.org/.


Montgomery, D. R. (2007). Soil Erosion and agricultural sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(33), 13268–13272. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0611508104


Parker, Laura. “The World's Plastic Pollution Crisis Explained.” Plastic Pollution Facts and Information, 7 June 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution/.


Polman, E. M. N., et al. (2021). Comparison of the aerobic biodegradation of biopolymers and the corresponding bioplastics: A Review. Science of The Total Environment, 753, 141953. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141953


Scheuerell, S., & Mahaffee, W. (2002). Compost tea: Principles and prospects for Plant Disease Control. Compost Science & Utilization, 10(4), 313–338. https://doi.org/10.1080/1065657x.2002.10702095


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Research Plan:


The first aim for this research project is to create the compost tea brewing machine. Once the materials are ordered, they can be put together in a way in which it can provide compost tea every day for multiple trial subjects for a total of 90 days. This can be achieved by creating and installing an automated system to input food scraps and distribute the finished product to the samples at specific time intervals. This will allow the project to continue even when the researcher isn’t present. This system also must be made portable, so that it can be moved into the school’s greenhouse once the temperatures begin to drop in the fall.

The second goal for this project is to conduct the degradation trials. This will occur for a total 90 days, and there will be minimal intervention inside the soil testing areas until the trial period is over. However, data must be collected of the soil on each day of the trial period, such as soil moisture, pH levels, and NPK values. This will allow for a better understanding of the conditions of the samples and the overall change in the soil’s quality.

The final step for this project is to analyze the degradation in the samples during and after the trial period is over. The samples, including a control, will be measured in 15 day intervals for its percent of degradation when compared to the original sample (before it was placed in the ground). This will allow for a visual understanding of the sample’s trajectory throughout the degradation process, rather than just the first and last days of the trial period. However, this must be done in a way that will cause minimal disturbance to the processes occurring in the soil

Questions and Answers

1. What was the major objective of your project and what was your plan to achieve it? 

       a. Was that goal the result of any specific situation, experience, or problem you encountered?  

My father's small business of areca sheath plates motivated me to challenge the manufacturer claim of plates bio-degrading in 60-90 days. I wanted to see if this claim was correct or not, leading me to the idea of starting this project for a science experiment. Since then I have been conducting experiments on plant based tableware, from simple degradation tests to using enzymes to improve degradation rates. The latest experiment I did used compost tea to increase both degradation rates and soil nutrient content.

       b. Were you trying to solve a problem, answer a question, or test a hypothesis?

I wanted to address the issue of replenishing biodiversity of eroded soil while also looking at ways to prevent the looming issue of plastic alternative waste management.


2. What were the major tasks you had to perform in order to complete your project?

       a. For teams, describe what each member worked on.


I have been conducting projects related to plant-based tableware degradation for several years, but I came up with the idea to test compost tea while getting a private tour of Princeton University's SCRAP Lab at the Department of Sustainability. I designed my procedure based on reading the few research papers available on compost tea in general. Many were very old, or from foreign countries, so I had to cater the procedure towards my experiment and situation.

I created my own compost tea brewing system, and used this to make and apply the tea to my samples. I also gathered data using tools such as soil moisture meters, pH meters, and NPK test kits. I then calculated degradation percentage by taking photographs of the bowls and placing them on a grid. Using the originally calculated area, I was able to calculate the percent of the bowl that had degraded using grid area computation. I formulated my conclusions by comparing the data I had extracted and comparing the test groups to each other and the control groups.



3. What is new or novel about your project?

There has been very little research revolving around compost tea in general, most of which tests the growth and/or disease resistance of plants. Previous research has shown that compost tea helps increase the growth rate of plants, but the tea must be applied in different ways based on the type of tea and the stage of growth the plant is currently in. I decided to delve more into the degradation side, by testing whether compost tea could aid in breaking down plant based plastic alternatives.


4. What was the most challenging part of completing your project?

      a. What problems did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest problem I faced was the lack of resources. Very little research has been done on compost tea in the first place, and close to none have focused on it's effects on degradation. I had to overcome this by contacting experts including Gina Talt at the Princeton University SCRAP Lab and Elaine Ingham, the author of one of the few comprehensive compost tea studies.

      b. What did you learn from overcoming these problems?

I learned the importance of reaching out and collaborating with others in the scientific community. The best results come from varied opinions and ideas.


5. If you were going to do this project again, are there any things you would you do differently the next time?

Looking deeper into the specific bacteria that cause this change in biodiversity, and which ones work to degrade multiple different materials.


6. Did working on this project give you any ideas for other projects? 


I envision building a commercial ‘Aerated Compost Tea Brewing System’ for composting centers to handle the mass volume of plant-
based waste to produce compost that will help soil biodiversity and develop healthy agricultural farms for a sustainable food system.


7. How did COVID-19 affect the completion of your project?

My project was conducted at my home, so the pandemic did not pose any problems during the experimental process.