I've been to a fair share of parties where some folks don't make it from the back yard to the bathroom, but that certainly isn't the ideal method of lawn care. In general, we humans ship our wastewater off to treatment plants, a land and energy intensive process. And to make it all worse, a great deal of America's vital drinking water gets poured onto its lawns...about 15,000 gallons PER HOME!
But what if we could close the loop. What if our wastewater could be processed on-site and then pumped back out to make our gardens grow? Whether it sounds disgusting or exciting to you is, I suppose, a matter of perspective. But it looks like it's right on the horizon.
Biokube, a Danish company, is bringing the BioKube Venus to America. The Venus is a septic tank advanced enough that it can make your waste water clean enough for use in agriculture (i.e. watering your lanw.) The device would produce more than the 15,000 gallons used by most households. The excess would just be released into groundwater like current septic systems. But, I suppose you'd want to limit the amount of frolicking in the sprinklers your kids were doing.
So-called gray water has been used for irrigation for a long time. Simply pumping processed waste-water to nearby land for irrigation is a great way to prevent drinking water being dumped on lawns across the world. But those systems require laying twice as much pipe for water delivery...one for clean water, and one for gray water.
The Venus works by passing the wastewater through membranes tightly packed with cleansing bacteria. The device is about six feet tall and four feet wide and can clean about 7.5 liters of water every 15 minutes.
The Venus will make it's debut in California, where the government is cracking down on dirty old septic systems AND wasted drinking water. It's a perfect storm for the Venus, which could solve both of those problems at the same time.
Carbonscape, a company based in Marlborough, New Zealand, has found a new use for microwaves – sequestering carbon dioxide. They have recently developed a way to nuke things like wood chips (and other useless biological wastes) into charcoal. By doing so, carbon dioxide that would otherwise leak into the atmosphere is effectively locked into the charcoal. This charcoal, or “biochar”, is then buried into soil. The benefits of biochar-infused soil include improved soil fertility, fewer soil emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, and the improved ability of soil-dwelling microbes to extract carbon dioxide from the air.
Carbonscape has tested its technology, and is moving to initial batch scale production at its South Island, NZ facility. Once fed with wood debris, each oven can turn 40-50% of it into charcoal, or one ton of charcoal per day, says the company. Of course, the microwave ovens themselves require electricity… which in turn has a carbon dioxide price tag. But Carbonscape claims that, given the amount of carbon sequestered in the charcoal, the overall balance is carbon-negative.
“The application of microwaves to charcoal making is new,” Tim Flannery of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia - an expert on climate change who is not associated with the company - told New Scientist. “If it increases efficiency in the charcoal-making process it could prove to be a real winner.”
We’ve heard of storing carbon in old mines, in deep-down porous rock formations, under the ocean, even in concrete or nanomaterial. But here is one I hadn’t heard before…storing it in dirt – particularly, farming dirt specifically for CO2 storage. A new type of farming is being explored by scientists at the US Geological Survey and UC Davis, a type of farming that will produce soils that can store carbon dioxide.
Really, it isn’t so much farming as restoring native environments that naturally like to store CO2 – wetlands with peat soils. The notion actually takes a lot of the high-tech out of the equation, and helps us store CO2 by bringing us back to our roots, literally.
The scientists started a pilot project a few years ago in the San Joaquin Valley River Delta that included planting up a bunch of wetland plants in 1997. By 2005, 10 inches of peat soil was produced through the plants growing, dying, composting, and regrowing. The scientists’ experiment has shown that up to 25 metric tons of CO2 annually can be stored in an acre of peat. It would take a whole lot of acreage, but the scientists say that if California restored all the subsided lands in the Delta and made them “carbon farms,” the lands could store enough carbon to equate trading all the SUVs in the state for hybrids.
While that might sound attractive, there are some serious issues. The wetlands could release nitrous oxide, which is worse that carbon dioxide, as well as methylmercury, which is basically poison for mammals. Measurements of released methane varied widely during the pilot project, and they didn’t measure release of nitrous oxide at all. So the project could set us back, rather than launch us forward.
Despite the risks, the scientists have been awarded over $12 million to test the research on 400 acres in the Delta.
I dig the idea of restoring the landscape to what it once was, and benefiting from the natural occurances. Yet the possibilities of mucking things up worse than they are is not such an attractive notion. While California needs to cut emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, this potentially a risky way of doing it, instead of, say, actually swapping all the SUVs in the state for fuel efficient vehicles… The concept definitely has some pros and cons to be carefully weighed as the experiment progresses.
My first reaction when I got the press release for the NatureMill indoor composting machine was to laugh. Why would anyone need a $300 machine in order to do composting? All you need is a corner of your yard where you can set a compost pile and let the worms and bugs and micro-organisms do what they do. Composting works just fine without a machine to run the process. Isn't this just another case of someone trying to sell an overpriced and unnecessary gadget with a little bit of “greenwash”?
Then, as I thought about it further, I realized that not everyone has a yard where they can have a compost pile. Apartment and condominium dwellers may not have a space where they could even have a compost pile, or, if they do have a yard, association restrictions and proximity to neighbours would prevent them from having an exposed compost pile. Offices may also have sufficient organic waste that composting would be a reasonable thing to do, but again, don't have an available space where they could put the materials and allow natural composting to take place. Despite these restrictions, someone in any of these circumstances might nevertheless want to compost their organic waste. And no one wants to have a compost pile sitting around in their apartment or office. So, perhaps there is a place for this machine, for some people's needs. As a machine, it only needs about $0.50 worth of electricity per month to operate, according to the manufacturer. And it is small enough that it can be installed in an under-cabinet configuration.
It would still only make sense for users who had someplace to use the compost they produced. There's not much point in composting the waste unless you can use it for a garden or some other useful end. And if it can help support more urban gardening, then maybe it's a good thing.
Animals are adorable...but meat is tasty. So what is the solution? Well, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have decided that, indeed, they would be quite happy eating meat....just so long as it isn't grown on an animal.
PETA is offering a USD$1 M prize to the first research group who can create a way to grow commercially viable meat in the laboratory. Now, I'm all for this, but almost every single environmentalist I know finds it very creepy. To me, growing meat on an animal seems like an inherently inefficient process. I mean, you've got to pump tons of food into this living thing so it can create bones and brains and move around and have sex and think little thoughts and create, as almost a side effect, a small amount of food. In the end, you only get back a tiny fraction of the energy you put in.
Granted....it's a very tasty fraction.
Growing meat in the lab isn't a pipe dream. In fact, people are doing it right now. Already, skin grafts can be grown to assist burn victims. And, basically, we're just talking about frying that tissue instead of using it to help sick people. Also, theoretically, we wouldn't be using human tissue as a seed stock...though that opens up some interesting philosophical doors.
PETA's announcement comes on the heels of the completion of the first-ever in vitro meat symposium in Norway where scientists began to organize their efforts. One of the key challenges they faced, they said, was lack of funding (surprise!) Though PETA's $1M prize probably won't add all that much incentive...it is good press...and a good endorsement.
Many of the enviros I've talked to are somewhat repulsed by the idea, a sentiment I absolutely don't understand. But the real problem is technical feasibility. Creating a sheet of pure protein is one thing. But lacing it with the blood vessels, fat pockets, and complex proportions is another story all together. Chances are, the first in vitro meats are not going to be very tasty at all.
Theoretically, the meat could be grown from a single sample from an animal, allowing the possibility for new kinds of meats that could otherwise never be consumed. I don't know why this sounds so appealing to me...but if the pig can create so many fantastic flavors...what are we missing out on by not eating penguins and polar bears?
And, unless they're very cheap, probably won't be a simple thing to market either. In any case, fake meat is likely going to be a part of our future, and with farm animals contributing to the twin global challenges of massive habitat destruction and global warming, it can't come too soon.