Western student powers launch of new compostability testing center

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—An innovative new lab at Western Michigan University will help companies evolve to a greener future. Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification is expected later this summer on the new compostability testing facility—one of just four of its kind in North America.

Western's new lab will certify products as compostable if they pass the three primary steps of the compostability test:

  • Disintegration: Confirming the test product breaks down in size.

  • Biodegradation: Making sure it converts to carbon dioxide in a timely manner.

  • Toxicity: Testing seed germination and plant growth to ensure the soil is viable.

"Our CO2 conversion equipment is unique, possibly making us the only fully automated testing lab in the world," says Lon Pschigoda, general manager of the WMU Pilot Plants. "We've gone to the next level and set our system up to automatically capture data and generate reports for us."

The WMU Pilot Plants already do recyclability testing for a number of national and international brands, such as Starbucks. Many of those companies are now looking to continue advancing their sustainability goals to include compostability.

"A lot of food-service packaging items, if they're going to have excessive food residue on them, are probably not going to be recyclable because of the food contamination. The good news is that the food contamination, in many cases, actually makes the product even more compostable because you've got that extra 'bug food' it carries to help the microbes break it down," Pschigoda says.

"One of the easiest things that we can do as stewards for the planet is to get food waste and paper scrap out of landfills."

According to the USDA, between 30% and 40% of the country's food supply ends up in landfills.

Jason Wang stands with his arms crossed.

Wang led development of the lab.

"If these types of materials go into a landfill without oxygen, the process is anaerobic, which creates methane," Pschigoda adds. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas, estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to be more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere. "Alternatively, we can break these items down quickly in compost, which will allow the release of CO2 and make a good, healthy soil conditioner that will go back to farmland."

Jason Wang, a paper science Ph.D. candidate, led the installation and development of the new compostability testing lab. His experience makes him one of the few North American experts in this type of equipment and setup.

"It was a challenge for me; we kind of started from scratch. But it aligns with my Ph.D. expertise, developing innovative green technologies to promote sustainability," he says. "I like that challenge, and it's been a great adventure."

Wang was introduced to the industry at an early age and has had the opportunity to see it evolve. He's excited to now be leading the industry into the future.

"I was always interested and passionate (in the industry)," he says. "The future is about sustainability, zero waste, replacing plastics."

Pschigoda hopes to hire Wang to run the compostability testing lab full time once he finishes his studies at the end of August.

"We feel like compostability is going to be a significant part of consumers and brand owners coming together to make a positive change in how we impact the environment," Pschigoda says.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.