Public Composting Survey
Objectives of the survey
In order to get effective feedback for human practices, we needed to be strategic with whom we interviewed. We have talked to stakeholders, such as restaurant owners, experts on pectinases, and composting specialists. We have received valuable knowledge from a variety of individuals that have helped shape and improve our project. But, despite this, we still recognize the value in finding the opinions of one of the most important stakeholders: the general population; the people who will be directly affected by our project. Thus, we created a survey to gain opinions and perspectives that help to inform our project’s trajectory.
One of the major goals in the survey was to gather opinions and attitudes towards food waste and composting. A major aspect of our project is to spread awareness and change public opinion on composting and food waste. In order to do this, we first had to understand what the current attitudes were, recognize if there was a need for our education aspect, and to narrow a target for the goal of this aspect.
Methods of forming and distributing survey
A draft of our survey was initially sent to the University of Lethbridge Office of Research Ethics for review. After it was approved for distribution, we slightly revised a few questions, then formatted it in Qualtrics, a secure survey delivery platform that was suggested by the ethics officer as the most secure option. Our survey was distributed through our team’s social media platforms, sent to friends and family members of our team, as well as distributed from Environment Lethbridge’s social media channels, with the help of Kathleen Sheppard, the organization’s executive director. We note that, due to our distribution methods, where, perhaps a higher number of participants are more active in the scientific community, and involved in environmental action than the general population, results may have been skewed slightly in that direction. Despite this, however, this survey was still extremely useful in gathering attitudes about composting and food waste; particularly concerning the education and outreach aspect of our project.
Survey Section 1: Understanding current problems with composting and where the problems with at-home composting lie, to get opinions to design our project to improve at home composting accessibility.
In response to the question “On a scale of one to ten, how hard do you try to reduce your household waste?,” the majority of survey participants answered above “6” on the scale. Those who answered above 5 on the scale elaborated on their methods of food waste reduction. Some responses are as follows:
“[ Compost], not buying more than what we can use, give away food when we buy or make more than we can use, use food scraps in other ways,” -Survey Participant, answered 6 on the scale.
“Delay grocery shopping trips as long as possible (shop my pantry and fridge), cook perishables and freeze before they go bad, freeze leftovers for lunches, make creative soups” -Survey Participant, answered 9 on the scale
“We buy only what we need and pay close attention to the state of food. Also, we participate in the flashflood program where we buy food that would normally [be] thrown away. Also, in some food we cut the part that is bruised and eat the rest. We save veggies scraps for broth.” -Survey Participant, answered 10 on the scale
Many people cited composting, buying only as much food as they needed, meal planning, and creative leftover food and overripe produce solutions. In general, results from this section of the survey would be beneficial to the education component of our project in particular, in that we would have more suggestions to give about food waste reduction based on the methods that the individuals responding to this survey have utilized. Out of 29 responses, 15 indicated that they do compost, 8 said that they do not, and 6 did not answer the question. When asked a question about the types of products generally composted, along with what challenges came along with composting, some responses went as follows:
“We compost everything except bones, meat, dairy, grains. It is very difficult to compost at home because it attracts a large variety of garden pests which in turn devour our garden vegetables. Because there are not many people in the neighborhood composting at this time our compost has become the bug Buffet. Because so many of our neighbors have Lawns full of chemicals with herbicides and pesticides it makes it very difficult to have an organic garden and compost.”
“We have worms at home for vermicompost and a backyard composter. The main challenge we find is that it takes a long time to get final compost that we can use in the garden.”
“All organic matter from the kitchen except meat and dairy, some paper products, I also experimented with a compostable plastic container someone brought to work. It did compost, but took 18-24 months”
“Nothing organic leaves my yard. I have a couple of ‘slow’ compost bins outside. I harvest from them once a year. Inside I have a vermicompost system and harvest every couple of months. It is my ‘fast’ composter. I really have no issues composting, it feels completely natural to me. During the summer when I have to be away from my worms my sister takes them.”
Many people described pests as one of the main challenges to composting, such as wasps and fruit flies, while a few mentioned composting freezing in the winter as an issue. Other participants described accessibility to outdoor space as a problem, and a couple cited the amount of time it took for the compost to break down as a challenge. As there was not a great majority of individuals who discussed the speed of compost as an issue, these results help to inform our project in directing our focus more towards industrial applications, where speed is a greater issue than it is in individuals’ compost. Additionally, the number of concerns about pests may help to direct our project in the future, to potential work on pest reduction as a system. For example, we could perhaps engineer a scent, to keep pests away from compost. We also asked a question directed towards people who do not compost, to describe why they do not. The two major things that came up in these responses were either people did not know how to compost, or they did not have access to it due to certain living arrangements (apartment buildings, renting, etc.). These responses would also help to greatly inform our education initiative to direct more attention towards teaching individuals how to compost, and finding creative solutions to compost in housing that does not generally support traditional composting.
“I compost when I’m living in Calgary (during summers) as it is easy with the provided bins. I’m not sure how to start/maintain my own compost & don’t have the resources/materials to do so”
“I've tried it once and it attracted gophers in my yard. I am single and don't produce much waste so it seems to take time for the compost to be workable. I would prefer that the city introduce brown bins to collect organic waste.”
Survey Section 2- Composting Accessibility
The chart below outlines the proportions of all the answers to a question concerning accessibility of compost. 50% of replies indicated “faster more efficient breakdown of compost” as an option that would help make compost more accessible to them. This data supports the idea that individuals are looking to increase the rate of the breakdown of their compost, which our system accomplishes. This can indicate a need for our system, although this data slightly contradicts the fewer amounts of replies discussing the speed of compost as an issue, in earlier questions. One reason for this incongruence may be because this question has the answer listed. So, people may not automatically view speed or efficiency as a real issue to their compost, but when given the option to, they would recognize the value in it.
Survey section 3: Feedback on our system
This part of the survey was dedicated to getting feedback and opinions on how the biological portion of our project is perceived. We wanted to understand if people would be willing to use our system and wanted to get feedback from these important stakeholders—the public—on how to make our system better.
At the start of this section, we included a brief description of our system’s objectives. It goes as follows:
‘Our team is working on a project to increase the rate of composting by engineering enzymes to break down pectin, a component found in the cell walls of plants that is present in the majority of fruits and plants that make up a composting pile. We are planning on having the system be administered in a lysate form, therefore there wouldn't be any live organisms.’
In this section, we included a question that asks the survey participants to describe any concerns they have with our proposed system, from a consumer standpoint. Several responses indicated no concerns, while multiple asked about the safety of it around pets, the compost, and the ecosystem, and some had concerns about it being overly expensive or taxing to use.
Responses: “How will this [affect] the dirt to use? Will there be any long-term negative effects on food grown with compost and therefore the people who eat that food?”
“I would just like more information about the process and product before making any changes to my home compost system. Pet friendly?”
“[ If it would] be too expensive or too time consuming. i.e.. if I had to add some every day.”
“[ N]one at this time - I think it's a great idea and believe that more efforts should be geared towards managing organic material that is wasted. I believe that no organic material should be sent to the landfills, so the more opportunities and research towards that belief is absolutely necessary and encouraged.”
These responses are extremely helpful, as they allow us to dive into other areas of research or our project, to ensure that our system is safe to use in various settings, and to look into cost analysis to ensure consumers are willing to pay for our system.
Overall, this survey allowed us to gauge concerns about composting, our biological system, and get valuable feedback on how to improve our system to best suit our stakeholders’ needs. Concerns about pests and cost were brought up, and it gave us insights into what people want and need in a food waste diversion system. As we continue to develop tPectinACE, these responses will help shape the way in which we design our system to address the concerns of home-composters, as well as spread awareness about the benefits of composting.
University of Lethbridge Play Day
Before COVID-19 greatly affected Canada, the University of Lethbridge hosted their annual Play Day event on February 17th 2020. This year it highlighted agricultural themed activities. At our tables we had a myth vs fact: agriculture and GMO presentation to inform parents while their children could play with molecule sets, colour, learn how to pipette or watch the ever so mesmerizing vortex.
Virtual Arts Show
Even with COVID-19 our team continued to find ways to engage with our community. Members of our team performed by means of singing, piano, guitar, and flute. In addition to the lovely music we used this as an opportunity to pitch our project and encourage people to donate to our GoFundMe page. Through this event we were able to raise an amazing $925 which our team was incredibly grateful for, especially since we are living in such tough times. Currently, we have reached our goal of $2,000 and could not be more thankful for our incredible community!
In efforts to continue educating people on synthetic biology and our system our team created a youtube channel to share just that. So far we have uploaded our project promo video and plan to upload an at-home composting tutorial.
Our team also participated in iGEM Calgary’s second annual JulyGEM, for Canadian teams and nearby regions. Members from our team prepared a presentation of which they pitched to judges and other attendees. In addition, we participated in their informative workshops and fun social events.
Canadian Genetically Engineered Machine Conference led by former iGEM team presidents from Toronto, Guelph and Western was another online event that our team participated in this season. This was a great opportunity for our team to get a feel for what the giant jamboree would be like!