by Eileen Weber
The last time I included the word “poo” in a blog entry, it referred to the water filter that converts sewage into potable water for impoverished areas. I can’t say that poo is a topic I spend oodles of time thinking about. But today, I am.
In yesterday’s New York Times, an article focused on a Dutch pig farm in the town of Sterksel that burns excrement. They trap the resulting methane and convert that gas into electricity. That’s substantial when, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 18% of livestock generate greenhouse gas emissions. Essentially, poo becomes renewable energy with this technology.
In other European cities, the process involves using sealed tanks in which the organic waste is anaerobically digested by bacteria. This throws off “biogas”, 70% of which is methane and 30% is carbon dioxide. The two gases, both of which are noxious for the environment, can then be separated.
The Netherlands, however, is not the first country to tackle this issue. For a number of years, India has been burning cow manure for the methane it produces. In 1994, the town of Lille, France, produced a bus that was powered by biomethane. And in 2005, Sweden produced its first biogas-fueled train.
The biggest offender in methane production is the beef industry. To all the vegetarians who have happily abstained from all things meat-related, not eating the offensive menu option might be a suitable solution to the problem. But in a country where beef is what’s for dinner and burger joints are on every corner, meat eaters are not suddenly going to disappear any time soon.
Laurence Wrixson, Executive Director of the International Meat Secretariat, was quoted in the New York Times article in reference to the fast-rising consumption of meat in developing countries like China, India, and Brazil. His point was rather than try to eliminate eating meat, we should concentrate on a better solution in the process of raising the livestock. “So whether you like it or not, there’s going to be a rising demand for meat,” he said, “and our job is to make it as sustainable as possible.”
While the “methane capture” process is still in its infancy in the U.S., we are one of the biggest meat producers as well as one of the biggest meat eaters. According to the USDA, consumers ate 28.1 billion pounds of beef in 2007. And, those numbers have been increasing steadily for the last 50 years. In a blog entry by Bill Chameides of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, he noted that it takes 600 gallons of water when raising cattle for beef to produce one hamburger patty. That amount of water is enough to keep one person hydrated for approximately three years.
I feel sheepish to admit that my own plate has seen enough meat over the years. But statistics like these make the benefits of vegetarianism a bit too staggering to conveniently ignore.