BLACKFOOT, Idaho — Life in the Northwest has its obvious perks: beautiful rivers, mountains, and all that clean air. Trash is also a way of life in the region. Every cardboard pizza box, hamburger wrapper, and old pair of shoes not recycled finds its way to a landfill.
An Idaho scientist says he has a solution and many others share his enthusiasm for using tiny microbes to eat away at a big landfill challenge.
Like most landfills in the U.S., the one in eastern Idaho’s Bingham County has been growing in size ever since it was established.
Rick Lindstrom is the manager at Bingham County’s Rattlesnake Canyon landfill who says “we started from just a fourth of what you see now to where it is.” Lindstrom describes the landfill as a growing problem, 420 acres in the beautiful back country near the Wyoming border. It could be considered prime real estate, with a view of the snow-covered mountains in the Caribou National Forest.
Text and video on the science behind microbes and how scientists are working with them.
Every day, trucks haul in waste measured by the ton. Rick Lindstrom says they receive between 30,000 and 40,000 tons a year.
It was here Lindstrom met Ted Carpenter, a microbiologist who has a different view of this landfill. Over the past few years, Carpenter has conducted several tests at this site using microbes to convert trash into compost.
While showing off the rows of compost his microbes created from landfill waste, Carpenter’s enthusiasm for the tiny organisms’ handiwork is obvious. To prove his conviction that they can safely convert toxic material into useful compost, Carpenter plunges both hands into the rich black material, lifts it to his nose, and inhales deeply.
“They are perfectly safe,” he announces. “I can keep my hands in this material basically all day long.”
Carpenter, 59, has maintained his excitement about microbes for decades. Since college he has worked for several environmental companies around the country on similar projects. His latest employer is Environmental Recovery of Idaho based in Blackfoot.
Carpenter uses a proprietary method to get the microbes to act rapidly. Compared to other methods, he says his process is able to produce more heat and allows the microbes to survive at higher temperatures.
“It is recycling, we recycle everything, see? It goes back to the earth,” Carpenter says. “It goes back into being useful product. It’s taking what people call garbage and recycling it as black dirt.”
Carpenter claims his process is unique because it breaks down wood, plastics, and Styrofoam cups in just ten weeks. After testing his microbe technology on these materials, Carpenter upped the ante by introducing other materials: five gallons of diesel fuel, three gallons of gasoline, several quarts of motor oil, along with anti-freeze, pesticides, and the carcinogenic compound methylene chloride.
Afterward, Carpenter conducted a test, with officials from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality on hand to monitor the results. The agency’s approval was necessary for his company to continue developing its trash-eating microbe technology. The state agency concluded that the resulting compost was well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable contaminant levels. They not only tested the black compost piles but also the water runoff and found contaminants were again below the allowed levels.
Carpenter’s idea to get rid of waste isn’t entirely new. Scientists across the U.S., including Ronald Atlas, have been trying to develop a way of using microbes to break down waste like oil from recent spills near the Gulf Coast and the Exxon Valdez.
Atlas is a professor of biology at the University of Louisville. He says his research has shown this type of system works. But contrary to the results Carpenter points to, Atlas says the process for complex waste material still takes time, sometimes years to work.
Eva Top, a biology professor at the University of Idaho, says the science on composting is solid. Does she think it’s plausible that Carpenter’s process could get rid of harmful components in pesticides and other toxic products? Top says she can only rely on the tests done by Idaho’s environmental regulators.
Top says plants would not absorb toxins from Carpenter’s compost material. That’s because they either won’t grow or won’t use the material as nutrients. Which means Top believes it’s possible the process is safe for humans and other animal life.
The microbes Carpenter uses need hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen to survive. James Hendriksen, an applied environmental microbiologist at the Idaho National Laboratory, shares Carpenter’s enthusiasm for using microbes “to accomplish something that we need to do.”
Hendriksen and his colleagues are described as experts in the field by other microbiologists around the country.
“It’s a form of life that we previously didn’t know that much about simply because they are so small,” he says.
Among the most important areas of scientific discovery, when it comes to microbes, is their potential to help break down sewage and other wastes, Hendriksen says.
“That is just the tip of iceberg for what the natural world, the microbes, can do for us,” he says, noting that recent scientific advancements in reading the genetic code of organisms are speeding up the process of using microbes to break down materials.
There was a time, says Hendriksen, when microbiologists were growing microbes synthetically. But scientists have realized that there are a number of problems with that and that we can accomplish a great deal more by working with the naturally occurring micro-organisms. Today those natural microbes are being utilized to deal with oil spills, trash, and even nuclear bio-remediation applications.
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