Earthworms are the Stars of the Show in Graduate Student’s Research on Composting
Scenic design and earthworms don’t normally have a connection, but Kathalina Thorpe, Kent State scenic design graduate student, has connected the two to improve the environment.
At Kent State, Thorpe has been conducting research on using earthworms to compost fabric waste from scenic design shops and in the fashion industry, research she started three years ago as an undergraduate at Valdosta State University in Georgia funded as a project for the Blazer Summer Research Institute.
The research recently won Thorpe the fall 2022 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, a year after she was selected by audience members as the People’s Choice award winner during the fall 2021 competition.
“So far I have proven that worms will compost undyed muslin, dyed cotton, wool and acrylic yarn faster than they would decompose on their own in a landfill,” Thorpe said. “This research has been conducted in smaller tanks and will need to be tested on a larger scale, but to do that we must also machine a tabletop fabric shredder, and test our soil and worm castings to see if they are still a viable byproduct for putting into gardens and in general being safe for soil.”
The pandemic slowed the scope of the project and Thorpe paired it down to focus on just the worms. She looks forward to seeing how far she can take research here at Kent State with both schools for Theatre and Dance and Fashion, she said.
Thorpe’s earthworm research is a testament to her upbringing on a farm in Jacksonville, North Carolina. “I learned a lot of ecology information from participating in 4H and working with animals,” she said.
We asked Thorpe to tell us more about how she became interested in using worms to compost theater waste:
On how she connected her love of theater to her concern for the environment: At Valdosta State the costume shop professor was keen on community service because theater is very dependent on community. We looked around our shop and said what can we do that can grow over time and have an impact throughout our entire industry. We looked at how much fabric waste is produced in the costume shop. A lot of it can break down in a compost pile.
On what inspired her to choose earthworms to research: The idea for earthworms came about because I worked with farm animals when I was growing up. We put our heads together (at Valdosta State) and said what if we tried earthworms to compost fabric waste?
On why she brought her research to Kent State: I chose Kent State because I was told I could bring this research with me. I was also told that Kent State was awarded the R1 status for research. Theater isn’t known for its research; theater is known for its productions and what we do as designers when it comes to picking a school for your master’s program. When I spoke with mentors and faculty at Kent State, I told them this really means a lot to me, and I want to make a difference in the industry.
On the challenges of making earthworms happy in their habitat: Mating earthworms to the soil was challenging. I did not realize how fragile they are. Worms are sensitive to temperature changes. I had to read more articles about worm husbandry than I ever thought I’d read. They were happy when I brought them into a temperature-controlled space. The other thing is worms don’t have mouths like ours, so cutting the fabric into small pieces is necessary. A fabric shredder would make the process better.
On where the research goes from here: Writing a journal about how to use earthworms for composting will help other costume shops avoid the pitfalls. We can also create a patent for a small fabric shredder for the small costume shop. I am also trying to find a department to partner with. An innovation opportunity allows for potential financial aid.