What makes good compost? French students on quest to collect scientific data

In addition to the scientific contribution of this project, "compostology" primarily aims to raise public awareness of waste reuse. [Shutterstock]

Four students are offering to study composting from a scientific perspective by launching a collaborative study on the speed of decomposition of organic waste. EURACTIV France reports.

According to the “Circular Economy Package” adopted by the EU in 2018, all European cities will have to offer their residents a solution for sorting their organic waste by the end of 2023.

Food waste represents 30% of the contents of our waste bins, according to France’s Ecological Transition Agency, known as Ademe.

Contrary to a multitude of plastic waste that clutters our garbage cans, food waste is biodegradable, so should technically come with a clear conscience when composted correctly.

However, when the waste is landfilled – incinerated or fermented in an oxygen-free environment – it becomes a greenhouse gas emitter.

But while the web is full of advice and recipes for making one’s own compost, scientific data on the subject remains relatively scarce.

With this observation in mind, four students at the Paul Sabatier University of Toulouse have set up their “compostology” project.

“We have noticed that various questions, sometimes prejudices, surround compost. We wanted to see more clearly,” said Thibault, who specialises in the studies of ecosystems and anthropisation.

More focus needed on food waste in the creation of a circular economy

Ahead of a Finnish Council Presidency’s conference that aims to set the EU agenda for action on food waste towards 2030, a number of companies have made commitments to reduce their food waste, but a number of barriers still stand in their way.

A ‘collaborative study’

The students set up a “collaborative study”, meaning it is open for anyone to participate provided that they respect the experimental protocol.

The starting premise of the study is that water and coffee grounds accelerate the decomposition of organic waste.

To test their hypothesis, the four students suggested participants put potato peelings to be composted in three different bags: one filled with soil and coffee grounds, the second with soil and water, and the third with soil only. After one month, participants are encouraged to submit their results.

“It was important for us to offer an experiment that was easy to carry out, to reduce the margin of error, and at a low cost,” said Thibault. To have conclusive data, the experiment had to be conducted a large number of times.

“We needed at least 30 participants. A week before the registration deadline [15 November], we had 40,” he said.

To reach a large audience, the four young scientists set up a website and “did a great deal of communication on social media,” noted Arthur Compin, their supervising professor and research engineer at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

With his colleague Camille Larue, the two researchers could look to extend the students’ project at the Functional Ecology and Environment Laboratory in Toulouse.

Encouraging composting  

In addition to the scientific contribution of this project, “compostology” primarily aims to raise public awareness of waste reuse.

This study comes on the back of a rising interest in composting practices.

“Of course, this is a subject that we were drawn to. But we noticed that more and more people were interested in it, and not only in the campaign,” said Thibault, who, along with his colleagues, set up a Facebook survey on the issue.

While owning a garden makes composting easier, an increasing number of French households are adopting this practice, notably because of changing policy.

This is due to the fact that communities are increasingly offering composting choices such as individual composters, food waste collections and shared bins.

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[Edited by Natasha Foote / Zoran Radosavljevic]

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