Billions of bacteria can save the planet
- Published: 12 June 2010
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As the cost of landfill sites soars and governments struggle to keep pace with increased levels of rubbish, the time has come for more authorities and individuals to recognise the power of microorganisms to transform our waste to energy, writes Denna Jones.
Faceless single cell organisms invisible to the naked eye are a hard sell. You can’t video them riding a Roomba and notch up a few million views on Youtube. They don’t have friendly names, and a few – like necrotising fasciitis, the “flesh-eating bacteria” – are labelled with both a grim sounding Latin name and a popular Hammer horror-like handle.
But twenty years ago marketing gurus in Melbourne created demand in Australia for a seemingly unpalatable product – a drink laced with bacteria. The well-known Japanese yogurt drink boasts a billion or so “friendly” bacteria in each small dose.
Its global popularity demonstrates that knee-jerk revulsion can be overcome with perseverance, education and smart marketing. We have accepted “friendly bacteria” for human health. It’s time to create a “friendly bacteria” campaign for the health of our planet.
Oxygen-free (i.e. anaerobic) bacterial digestion, or “AD”, is the “friendly” bacteria solution for a healthier planet. The technology isn’t new, but AD is increasingly popular as a primary method to convert biodegradable organic waste – food, human sewage, farm slurry and commercial industrial waste - into energy.
Large-scale municipal AD plants are in operation throughout Europe. But AD uptake isn’t limited to large-scale production. Small portable power digesters like the A500 Rocket Composter allow mid-sized businesses or blocks of flats to be AD efficient. And under-the-sink non-electric AD digesters are available for home food waste.
Food waste is layered into a bin, compressed with hands or a paddle to remove air, and sprinkled with Bokashi (a bran mixture inoculated with microorganisms) before the airtight lid is snapped on. A release tap allows excess fluid to be drained off once a week or so. The layering process is repeated until the bin is full. The bin rests for several weeks before its contents are added to a compost heap.
AD has the potential to be a democratic technology available to every income level or provided as part of a basic refuse service by local councils. We can’t afford to ignore or underutilise this technology. So why are so few of us aware of bacteria-based waste solutions? The reasons for slow uptake in the UK include:
Bacteria-based waste solutions need a media makeover similar to what was achieved twenty years ago for the Japanese yogurt drink. Anaerobic Digestion is a specialist term, and what’s needed is a descriptive, media friendly name.
The “smeg” factor, i.e. disgust associated with the concept of bacteria and decomposing waste, tarnishes the AD concept. But if we can accept the idea of drinking yogurt teeming with live bacteria, surely we can accept the idea of having bacteria living under our sinks eating our food waste? The yogurt company knew marketing alone wasn’t enough to overcome the yuck factor, so they created a comprehensive multi-layered campaign which embedded education in all areas of the product so consumers would understand the drink and its benefits.
A similar education and PR campaign needs to be created for AD.
The websites of many AD manufacturers, distributors and commercial operators assume prior knowledge of the technology. Most fail to connect with newbies. Even well designed “friendly” sites are mainly B2B, i.e. geared towards business rather than home users.
Many fail to adequately explain what AD is, its benefits, and how the average household can use AD technology. More importantly, websites need to clearly demonstrate how AD can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save money for consumers and their council.
It’s only a matter of time before Governments will be forced to charge us for our carbon footprint choices, and first among those charges will be rubbish collection and landfill use.
Now’s the time to get ahead of the curve and implement a home AD system. And finally, product websites should tell us that AD doesn’t create disgust, but decreases or eliminates it by segregating food waste from non-bio waste. No more smelly bins!
The election manifestos published by the three main British political parties for the May 2010 UK election each contained green promises.
The Labour party’s green incentives include a “feed-in” tariff (FIT), which launched 1 April 2010, and “Pay As You Save” (PAYS), which is currently being trialled in five UK pilot studies. FIT– a “clean energy cash back” scheme – gives homeowners, businesses and organizations monthly energy rebates when they install green technology under the Government’s microgeneration certification scheme (MCS).
Property owners have low or no upfront costs as the equipment purchase and installation costs are paid via a private scheme that operates like a mortgage, i.e. the cash outlay is treated as a chargeback on the property, with monthly payments payable by the homeowner to the lender. The incentive however, is the monthly energy cash back to the property owner from the energy supplier is expected to exceed the chargeback.
Approved FIT technology includes wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels and anaerobic digestion units, but all must generate energy that feeds back into the grid via an approved installer/supplier route. In other words, greens with a low-tech, low-carbon lifestyle, who for example, have small non-electric AN units or who are “off-the-grid”, will not benefit from FIT cash back.
Another criticism is that FIT only provides benefits for property owners, and relatively prosperous ones at that despite Government protestations to the contrary. The millions of people who rent are disenfranchised. Some will argue that private and social landlords can install green technology for the benefit of their tenants. True. But as a serial renter with a sound knowledge of the UK Buy-to-Let and rental market, I predict there will be few landlords who want the “hassle” of installing green energy units. In a related condemnation of FIT, UK environmental campaigner George Monbiot calls the approved technologies “comically inefficient”.
The UK’s new coalition government – a shotgun marriage between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – is just beginning to publicise their plans to reduce greenhouse emissions.
UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was interviewed on BBC’s Radio 5 on 7th June where she exposed her Department’s lack of lateral thinking with regards to composting. “If you live in a tower block” she declared, “how on earth can you do that [compost]?” Well Secretary Spelman, not only is it feasible to compost in a tower block, with a bit of organisation allied to AD technology it can be an easier, cleaner and more productive option than throwing every bit of waste – including food – in a black bin liner.
Bacteria are diverse, plentiful, prolific and indispensable recycling partners. But even billions upon billions of bacteria will be unable to digest our waste if we continue to throw away vast amounts of usable food and create endless streams of bio and non-bio waste.
Food production, consumption habits and waste contribute significantly to greenhouse gases. We need good technology solutions like AD, but more importantly we need to change our behaviour so we consume less, consume efficiently and throw away wisely.
It’s easy to be a “slacktivist” – people who support good causes but who won’t make the time to change their behaviour. Make a pledge to be an AD activist. And take pleasure in the fact that some of our best friends are the microorganisms we never see.
Denna Jones is associate editor at The Scavenger.