The world’s best recyclers: 3 new ways microbes are helping to treat waste  

Microbes love to munch on dirt and grease, but they don’t just eat nature’s waste, they recycle it. Natural environments have a cycle of life and death and microbes are crucial at every step. As the building blocks of life, they break down organic matter making it available for regenerating life.

If an environment is created where regenerative bacteria are dominant then putrefaction, a process producing a rotten smell and toxic gasses, turns into fermentation, which is odour free and regenerating. Fermentation releases chemicals including carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus that can be used to build new plants and animals.

As human beings, we create an incredible amount of waste. Europeans discard approximately 200 million tonnes of household waste every year. Although technology has evolved there is still some distance to go before we can systematically harness the energy in waste at scale. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation approximately one-third of the world’s food—nearly 1.3 billion tons—is wasted each year. Here are three ways microbes are being used to breakdown and reuse waste.

Helping to turn plastics into energy

POET Systems is the first anaerobic digestion technology to turn waste plastics into energy. Invented in Australia by David Thompson, the plastics go into an anaerobic situation in wastewater where the microbes digest the plastic and create energy. The technology has so far successfully been applied to polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene.

Creating biodegradable plastics from household waste

SYNPOL, an EU-funded project we featured in our news section, heats organic household waste until it breaks down and forms syngas – hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Scientists blast the waste with microwaves and then feed it to genetically engineered bacteria. The bacteria turn it into the building blocks of plastics which completely biodegrade after use. After proving the concept researchers are now working on taking the project to scale.

Using microbes to make bio-fuel out of food waste more efficiently

Researchers at Cornell University have refined the method for making bio-fuel out of food waste while reducing carbon use. First the food waste goes through a process of hydrothermal liquefaction, which is basically a pressure cooker that produces crude bio-oil. The remaining product is ready for microbes which convert it into methane to be used to produce electricity and heat. Combining these processes is more efficient and faster than ever before.

“We must reduce the amount of stuff we landfill, and we must reduce our carbon footprint. If we don’t have to extract oil out of the ground to run cars or if we’re using anaerobic digestion to make green electricity, we’re enhancing energy and food security,” Roy Posmanik, Researcher at Cornell University

Microbial innovations form part of the global waste solution helping humans learn how to close the cycle of life. At Microbz we support these advances and look forward to the day when they are widely adopted.

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