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Data Clinic Students Ally (Jiaying) Yun, Cecilia Zhang, and Kristof Turan
Data Clinic Students Ally (Jiaying) Yun, Cecilia Zhang, and Kristof Turan

Compostable and bioplastic packaging has been on a steady upward growth trend worldwide, gaining speed in recent years. However, issues exist around compostability certifications based on lab testing alone not proving sufficient to earn widespread facility acceptance. This can result in “compostable” products that do not disintegrate under the conditions specific to all composting facilities. In-field testing for product disintegration is one attempt to bridge this gap.

The Compostable Field Testing Program (CFTP) is an international, open-source research platform for composters to field-test compostable foodware and packaging. Operating since 2016, CFTP has collected data from field trials conducted at multiple compost facilities with varying processing technologies, scale, and geography.

DSI and CFTP, with support from the 11th Hour Project, are now analyzing disintegration and facility data which represents more than 30,000 units of packaging, 82 different types of individual fiber and compostable plastic packaging and products, and 18 diverse composting facilities to date. The goal is to create an interactive dashboard that is useful for a wide audience, including composters and packaging producers, food service establishments, policymakers, and the public.

A box plot showing the field test results for the mesh bag method across major compostable material categories.

During the 2024 winter semester, DSI clinic students worked with the CFTP to translate data into easily digestible results for use in an in-person presentation. In addition to providing visual interpretations of the data, the students provided feedback and input on the nature of the data and the best ways to communicate it meaningfully for a broad audience. Visualizations the students created were showcased at US Composting Council’s 34th annual conference, COMPOST2024, in Daytona, Florida, in the first-ever public sharing of the CFTP’s field test results.

The presenters covered the program’s background and the case for open-source data sharing. Most importantly, they shared the preliminary results of field testing the disintegration of compostable items across a range of facilities and a mockup of the public results database to be launched later in 2024.

“We are all aware of the challenges that plastic waste presents to our environment,” said Data Scientist Mentor Todd Nief. “We are thrilled to contribute to the CFTP’s mission to make composting field results more transparent.”