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Power of Poop

MY AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD COSMO can perform a fairly non-electrifying array of dog tricks. He can sit; he can shake; and he will fetch tennis balls until he has completely and utterly worn himself out. However, if Cosmo and I decide to move to San Francisco in a few years, he might be able to do something really cool: help generate electricity.

It was recently announced that the city has asked locally based Norcal Waste Systems, whose subsidiaries provide collection and recycling services throughout San Francisco, to begin a project that will explore the power-generating possibilities of dog dung.

Over the next several months, according to press reports, the firm will place biodegradable bags and dog-waste collection carts in a city park that is a particularly popular hangout for dog lovers and their canine companions. The doggie doo will then be placed in a methane digester, in which bacteria will feed on the feces and emit methane. Pleasant, eh? In theory, at least, the methane then could be used to generate electricity or used to provide energy for devices powered by natural gas.

“There are a lot of bugs to work out, steps to figure out, costs to be considered, but we are beginning to talk to the city about it and look into this area more actively,” Robert Reed, Norcal's spokesman, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

While San Francisco is apparently the only U.S. city to undertake such an initiative, there are several European cities that create energy out of animal waste.

The project comes as San Francisco seeks additional ways to reach its goal of a 75 percent landfill diversion rate by the end of the decade. The city's diversion rate currently rests at an impressive 67 percent, and, according to published reports, animal feces accounts for about 4 percent of the city's residential waste stream. (Read about how Norcal diverts San Fran's food waste in “The Grapes of Trash,” p. 94.)

I admit: At least at first, there is something inherently funny about the San Francisco project. Ultimately, however, it's all too easy to dismiss the initiative by trotting out the “What have they been smoking lately in San Francisco?” lines.

The truth is, it's admirable that California and its local governments so aggressively seek to reduce their waste streams. Periodically, you will read about a California city or county that has set a zero-waste goal. While many may snicker, the people backing them will often sensibly explain that they just want their communities to work as hard as possible to reduce as much waste as they can. And some laughed when the state mandated a 50 percent landfill diversion rate, but many of its communities have achieved that. Considering that accomplishment, when a California community comes up with a new way to decrease its landfilled waste, we know that it's not full of crap.

The author is the editor of Waste Age