By Sale Rhodes ’16
Conversations about global climate change are becoming ubiquitous. And as the topic works its way into every subject taught here at Colgate, the daunting, scary, and undeniable problem seems so much bigger than any of us. Fortunately, sustainable initiatives are cropping up everywhere. But while some seem embraceable, it often feels as though our individual actions won’t make much of an impact in the big picture. However, the moment when we can accomplish societal behavior change and all work together seems far off and hard to grasp.
Thus the quest for alternative energy resources has commenced. There are many initiatives trying to steer us away from our reliance on non-renewable resources and fossil fuels. Some are even headed in a very unorthodox direction – toward generating energy from waste! Human waste, trash, and food waste dirty our sidewalks, crowd our landfills, and fill up our sewer systems. Showing no signs of decreasing any time soon, these waste products also share a potential upside as sources of energy. To capitalize on this potential solution, we must encourage a global sustainable mindset that allows people to get past the negative connotations associated with waste.
I spent this past summer in Kenya working with a social enterprise called Sanergy (saner.gy) that provides sanitation facilities in a slum and collects human waste from them daily. Sanergy then uses the human waste (‘humanure’) to create fertilizer through aerobic decomposition (composting), and biogas through anaerobic digestion (where biodigesters trap waste and collects methane generated as microbes in the organic material break down). Yes, I am talking about turning human feces into energy. I know – it sounds gross. You’re worried that the plants grown with the humanure-based fertilizer will carry yucky germs. But the truth is that the finished product of human waste and urine composting is extremely beneficial to plant growth because of its richness in carbon and nitrogen. Not only does this process keep waste out of the sewer system and off the streets of the slum, but it also generates a profitable product and a renewable source of energy. What’s not to love?
A few months ago, the Colgate Office of Sustainability visited Madison County’s recycling center. We were given an in-depth tour of the entire facility, and briefed on both the very extensive list of materials that are recyclable in our area (plastics 1-7, aluminum, glass, cardboard, and paper products), and the amazing renewable energy initiatives underway there. While their plans to put solar panels on top of the landfill are exciting, the methane extraction program – which turns gas, produced naturally from the piles of decomposing landfill waste, into energy – was amazing! Large pipes divert methane from the landfill to a combustion machine, where the gas is converted into energy for electricity. This is then used to fuel parts of the recycling plant, with the excess being sold back to the grid. Besides sequestering methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, this process provides the plant with a constant and renewable energy source that doesn’t involve the combustion of any other fossil fuels, and generates revenue for the recycling center. The recycling center is also piloting a plastic-to-fuel program in which hard plastics can also be collected for recycling and turned into fuel. Madison County Recycling is setting the bar high for the future of trash disposal and recycling, leading the way for reusing waste as a source of renewable energy.
Food waste is a plague afflicting our nation, with more than a third of all the food produced in the United States going to waste. Most of that food ends up in our landfills, but there is more potential energy to be extracted from this food waste. Fermentation of organic materials produces methanol and ethanol, which can both be used as fuel. Both composting food waste (which has become increasingly popular in households and institutions everywhere) and setting up biogas digesters (which trap the gases generated before they are released into the air) are great ways in which we all can generate fuel from what would otherwise be classified as waste. Here at Colgate, we participate in a unique composting system that diverts pre-consumer waste from our dining halls and Greek Houses away from landfill and into a compost pile. We hope to extend this composting system to incorporate all of the Broad St. and Interest houses, and move to include post-consumer waste in our composting in the future. Although we aren’t yet creating a finished product from our compost, yet, the amount of food waste that has been diverted from landfill through this initiative is very significant.
These exciting technologies provide long-term renewable energy resources, keep waste out of landfills, and contribute to the fight against climate change by helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Using waste as an energy resource means reducing both physical waste and the greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere. All in all, it is amazing how much potential there is for re-use of so much what we dispose of. From the most state-of-the-art engineering minds, to start-up companies in third world countries, renewable energy has become a priority. Right here in Madison County and on Colgate’s campus, leaders of the movement toward sustainable living are making themselves known through concerted efforts to implement sustainable mindsets within communities. The potential for replacing non-renewable resources and fossil fuels with waste-based energy is relevant, inspiring, and exciting.