I came across a fascinating post on another blog called Using Garden “Problems” as Solutions.
There is nothing really new about turning a problem into a solution.
The author offers her story as an illustration of a general principle that the world would do well to follow.
As it is, technological solutions to environmental problems too often create more problems.
The author had a runaway pumpkin vine that was taking way too much space in her small garden and a plague of squirrels.
She heard that squirrels don’t like to deal with the prickly stems of pumpkin vines
So she decided to train the vine to grow around the perimeter of the garden. It will take a while for it to grow that much, but now its growth is no longer a problem, and there’s hope it will discourage the squirrels.
Food waste-landfill problem meets fuel problem
Food waste is a scandalous problem. Among other reasons, food takes up a lot of landfill space.
Landfills perfectly illustrate how technological solutions fall short.
Our national addiction to oil is another whole set of problems, of which the environmental impact is but one.
So here are just two of the ways that companies are using food waste to preserve alternative fuels.
British Airways has partnered with Solena Fuels to divert 575,000 tons of waste from landfills to a plant that will convert it first into a gas and then into jet fuel.
Solena expects the plant, being built on the site of a former oil refinery, to be operating by 2017, and British Airways has committed to purchasing 50,000 tons of jet fuel annually for at least 11 years.
New York City has partnered with Waste Management to divert organic waste from landfills. Waste Management will process it and deliver it to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
There it will be added to wastewater sludge to increase the production of biogas. In effect, New York will be getting some of its natural gas from the landfill instead of a drilling company.
Dairy waste meets plastic
The process of making cheese leaves whey as a by-product. Whey makes a good animal feed, but the dairy industry makes far more than farmers can use. Most of it just gets poured down the drain.
Meanwhile, whenever you go to the grocery store, you find cheeses, meats, and other foods protected from contamination by a plastic film. As thin as they are, these films consist of multiple layers of different plastics. But what good are those films after the food has been opened and consumed? It’s not recyclable. It just goes to the landfill.
German scientists have discovered a way to purify whey to make protein isolates. Together with bio-based additives, these proteins can make films that protect food every bit as well as plastic. And they’re biodegradable.
At the time the article was written, no one had yet started manufacturing the films, but companies that switch to whey protein, when the technology becomes available, will not have to make major changes to their plants.
Casein, another dairy waste, has proved useful for making fabrics. Another German, who is both a microbiologist and a fashion designer, is marketing clothing made from a dairy-based fabric she calls Qmilch.
Hog and other animal waste problem meets two problems
I can’t remember when I first read about capturing the methane that now rises from smelly and unsanitary manure lagoons to power the farm.
I wrote about a pilot project being jointly operated by Duke Energy and Duke University in North Carolina nearly three years ago.
There are about half a dozen similar projects in North Carolina alone. I haven’t tried to count all of the projects I have encountered in other states.
And I have been reading about them far longer than I have written this blog. I don’t understand why it’s not already more widespread.
Hog waste, it turns out, is useful for more than producing methane for fuel. Some day, perhaps, we can drive on it. Asphalt is basically some kind of aggregate held together by bitumen.
Although bitumen occurs naturally, as in the La Brea Tar Pits, most asphalt uses bitumen derived from petroleum.
A scientist at North Carolina A&T University has found a way to turn hog waste into a superior asphalt adhesive. Like manure to energy, manure to asphalt adhesive is a proven concept. It just needs to be scaled up to commercial production.
A miscellany of other problems that solve problems
Several major fabric manufacturers are already making high-quality polyester fibers from PET bottles (the plastic with the number 1 in the recycling symbol).
At least two companies are making new crude oil from waste plastic.
They’re both small companies, but they’ve been in business a couple of years. It’s another proven technology.
Waste plastic can also make an aggregate for concrete that’s superior to gravel.
The link only goes to the abstract of a scholarly article, which I don’t have access to.
But just imagine asphalt highways made of aggregate from waste plastic and bitumen from hog waste!
Finally, the problem of used motor oil meets the problem of fuel. Turn the motor oil into gasoline by heating it with microwaves! So far I haven’t seen anything about this idea besides the announcement from a meeting of the American Chemical society.
New technologies like these don’t become consumer products quickly. But all of these ideas at least seem practical, and small-scale production has begun for some of them.
Fixing our environmental problems will certainly cost money and may involve some sacrifice, but what it requires more than either of these is imagination.
Trash and recycling truck.Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Hog waste lagoon and effluent pump. Some rights reserved by DefMo.
Plastic bottles after the London Marathon.Some rights reserved by Paul Simpson.