as most of us have linked it with its use in agriculture and genetically modified crops, also known as agritech. But there is much more to biotechnology – it has applications in environmental management and medicine, among others. One of the most promising uses of biotechnology is actually waste management. At its core, according to the European Federation of Biotechnology, biotechnology involves “the integration of natural sciences and engineering in order to achieve the application of organisms, cells, parts thereof and molecular analogues for products and services 1.”
According to proponents of environmental biotechnology, this technology can provide a number of effective tools and solutions, which are sustainable and can be applied to monitoring and reducing the risk of contaminated sites, to cleaning up water, soil, and air or reusing wastewater2.
What can this exciting technology do about our increasing waste crisis?
Our mounting mountains of waste are one of the most daunting issues facing the world today – whether it is overfilling landfills polluting our land or ever increasing marine litter spoiling our seas. Our waste crisis is not just an environmental problem – it impairs public health and is even threatening to drown some poorer countries in toxicity.
Did you know that more than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection when each year nations generate an average of 1.3 billion tons of waste? What is more, the amount of waste we produce is expected to shoot up to 4 billion tons by 2100, according to the World Bank 3.
Waste and the pollution it creates can get into rivers and seep into ground water. Often, it can also cause flooding as excess garbage can clog drains, while the atmosphere is further polluted by the toxic discharges from trash. The proper management of waste is imperative as when it is not collected, the frequency of illness such as diarrhoea doubles and the incidence of acute respiratory infection due to the burning of waste becomes six times higher3.
So if biotechnology can lend a helping hand, we cannot ignore its potential to address our mounting waste problem.
What could be biotechnology’s role in waste management?
Not all biotechnology solutions are new to the waste management scene. Sewage farms – yes, you read this correctly – are an important element of waste management that most of us prefer not to think about but it is a clear example of biotechnology at work in waste management.
In sewage farms, sewage is used for both irrigation and for fertilizing agricultural land. This helps conserve scarce water resources but also the suspended solids in sewage can be converted to humus – the part of the soil that contains most nutrients – by microbes and bacteria which provides important plant nutrients minimise the need for fertilisers.
And if you think this is a modern invention you are in for an even greater surprise: household sewage was collected from towns and cities even during the Middle Ages so that it could be transported to nearby farms.
Today’s resurgence of compost heaps also illustrates how biotechnology can help us eliminate waste, even when it comes to just our own household.
But modern biotechnology can do a lot more…
…particularly when it comes to industrial wastes, which are much more difficult to process compared to food or plant waste, and yielding efficient new production methods that are less polluting than traditional processes. Biotechnology can even help convert industrial and other wastes into useful products4.
Indeed, the world of biotechnology seems to have no limits. Some of the most exciting discoveries include phytoremediation, which uses plants for the removal, degradation, or containment of contaminants in soils, sludges, sediments, surface water and groundwater5. Phytoremediation can be used as an alternative or complimentary technology to conventional clean-up technologies; not only is it effective but it is an ecologically friendly, solar-energy driven technology, which uses the natural abilities of plants.
Similarly, Living Machines are polycultural aquatic ecosystems that are “designed to evolve.” More specifically, they are made of a diverse mix of organisms whose population mix adapts according to the particular nutrient mix of the waste stream. This is nature at its smartest!
The developer, Dr John Todd, believes that an ecosystem of organisms can do a clean-up job far better than any human manager so he thought of a technology that allows for nature to take its course – literally!
Living Mechanisms have already been used to treat urban sewage and other relatively benign industrial waste water from food processing plants4.
But waste also occurs during industrial production; for example, food processing requires the use of large quantities of water and also produces a lot of organic waste. Biotechnology can be applied in this sector to reduce water usage as well as organic waste.
- In the Netherlands
One company has developed a biological treatment system for water in its vegetable processing facility which has reduced water use by 50%.
- In Germany
Company Cereol has implemented an enzyme-based system for the degumming of vegetable oil during purification after extraction. This process means that the company no longer needs to use sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid, caustic soda or large quantities of water. The enzyme system has eliminated the need for treatment with strong acid and base, and as such reduced water use by 92% and waste sludge by 88% 5.
Some confirmed environmental benefits of biotechnology solutions
Over the years, real-life case studies have shown that biotechnology can not only reduce costs but it can also reduce the environmental footprint of a given activity. Studies have shown that capital and operating costs decreased by 10-50% after adopting biotechnology solutions while in some cases energy and water use decreased 10-80%; what is more, in some processes it was possible to reduce the use of petrochemical solvents by 90% or even eliminate it completely6.
With so many successful applications, it is not surprising therefore that a 2002 report estimated the total worldwide sales of environmental biotechnology products for U.S. manufacturers at $103.5 million with a projected annual growth rate of 8.3%3. Perhaps it is time more consumers jumped on the biotechnology bandwagon to explore what sustainable solutions are on offer to curb our waste problem!