Student Spotlight - Emily Bryson

Category: Our People

  01 Dec 2021

Name: Emily Bryson

Degree: PhD (Environmental Science)

Topic: Home Composting Domestic Canine Faeces for Use in Small-Scale Food Production

Institution: Central Queensland University

Supervisors: Dr Amie Anastasi, Dr Lisa Bricknell, Dr Ryan Kift

Est. completion: Dec 2022


About me

My path to research has been a bit unconventional, which makes sense as home composting dog poo is a pretty novel topic. Growing up, I spent a lot of time climbing trees, playing with small animals, digging in my backyard veggie garden and making things. I was lucky to attend a couple of summer camps in science, engineering and visual arts. These all fostered my curiosity for nature, ecosystems, and using creativity to solve problems.

I started Uni studying life and physical sciences before moving interstate to train as a visual artist. After completing my BFA in technology-based art, I worked for over a dozen years as a graphic designer and animator. Wanting to transition to a career in environmental sustainability, I completed a Graduate Certificate in Permaculture Design in 2017. During this program, I focused on organic waste management and realised a need for more robust scientific evidence in sustainability projects and policies. This is also where I met my primary PhD supervisor, Amie.

PhD research

My PhD project investigates the potential for dog faeces to be composted on a household scale to produce a low-risk soil amendment for use in edible gardens. Dog poo is a source of environmental pollution, both through the plastic bags used for collection and disposal and the risk of pathogen transmission. Dog owners and local councils are looking for more environmentally friendly methods of dog poo disposal. Composting and compostable bioplastic dog waste bag could be used to reduce plastic and pathogen pollution while recycling organic matter for use in food production. While there are products available to help dog owners compost their pet’s poo at home, there is surprisingly little research on how effective they are at breaking down bioplastic bags or whether the end product is safe for use on edible plants.

My PhD project has five studies to provide more evidence on the risks and benefits of home composting dog faeces. I started by conducting an online survey over to get a better idea of how Australian dog owners dispose of their dog’s poo and help inform the design of pilot-scale home compost trials. Two pilot trials used compost vessels kept under varying conditions. These vessels were made from modified 25 litre carboys and contained poo collected from dog day cares, bioplastic dog waste bags, and sawdust. Samples of fresh poo and finished compost were analysed in a lab to identify pathogens, measure their disinfection through the composting process, and compare treatments. I also measured how well the bioplastic bags decomposed in the compost trials. My Covid-safe study was an ecotox trial that looked at how dog poo treated with anti-parasitic medication affects Eisenia fetida, a species of worm commonly used in vermicomposting. I presented my results from this study at the SETAC Australasia conference in September (yay, milestone achieved!).

I’m currently two months into the final study of my project. It’s a field-scale home compost trial that applies findings from the other studies and represents the most common home compost system of surveyed dog owners. This time, I’m co-composting dog poo with food waste in 160 litre tumblers and testing five types of bioplastic bags. When the project is complete, I hope this research will provide dog owners clear information about how to effectively home compost their dog’s faeces and safely use the end product.

Where to from here

With more states implementing bans on single use plastics and increased funding for sustainable waste management, I anticipate more demand for expertise in my research area. I’ve already been contacted by several councils and individuals seeking advice on how to manage dog faeces in parks and households. The Covid-19 puppy boom certainly has created a lot of extra waste! Additionally, I paused my PhD to complete an industry project through APR intern last year. This study assessed the feasibility of establishing a composting plant in South Australia with a focus on feedstock sources and contamination.

I aim to finish my thesis by the end of next year (2022) and am on the lookout for opportunities where I can continue researching, learning new things and helping to make the world a better place. If you want a versatile and enthusiastic early career researcher for industry collaborations, post doc fellowships, teaching, or science communication, let me know – I’m up for all of it! I’d also love to meet more fellow SETAC-ers, so please connect with me on social media or get in touch via email.

Emily with her research assistant Bailey

Compost field trial in progress

Pollution or potenial resource?
You can find out more about Emily's work in an interview on ABC Radio National and an article in Cosmos magazine.

You can find Emily on LinkedIn, Research Gate, Twitter and Instagram.