Environment | Oregon

Microbes May Turn Idaho Trash Into Compost

OPB | May 16, 2011 11 p.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:05 a.m. | Blackfoot, ID

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Life in the Northwest has its obvious perks: beautiful rivers, mountains, and all that clean air.

Trash is also a way of life in the region. Every cardboard pizza box, hamburger wrapper, and old pair of shoes not recycled finds its way to a landfill.

But what if something could put a stop to the growing landfill problem? An Idaho scientist says he has a solution and many others share his enthusiasm for using tiny microbes to eat away at a big landfill challenge.

Like most landfills in the U.S., the one in eastern Idaho’s Bingham County has been growing in size ever since it was established.

Rick Lindstrom: “We started from just a fourth of what you see now to where it is.”

Rick Lindstrom is the manager at Bingham County’s Rattlesnake Canyon landfill. Today it takes up more than 420 acres in the beautiful back country near the Wyoming border. It could be considered by some prime real estate, with a view of the snow-covered mountains in the Caribou National Forest.

Every day, trucks haul in waste that can only be measured by the ton.

Rick Lindstrom: “Thirty to forty thousand tons a year.”

It was here Lindstrom met Ted Carpenter, a microbiologist who has a different view of this landfill. Over the past few years, Carpenter has conducted several tests at this site using microbes to convert trash into compost.

While showing off the rows of compost his microbes created from landfill waste, Carpenter’s enthusiasm for the tiny organisms’ handiwork is obvious. He plunges both hands into the black material and holds it to his nose.

Ted Carpenter: “They are perfectly safe, I can keep my hands in this material basically all day long.”

59-year-old Carpenter still gets excited when talking about his microbes. Since college he has been working for several environmental companies around the country on similar projects. Then he was hired by Environmental Recovery of Idaho based in Blackfoot.

The microbes he uses need hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen to survive. They get the hydrogen and oxygen from water and they process carbon and nitrogen from the trash material. Carpenter also uses a proprietary method to get the microbes to act faster, doing the job in ten weeks.

His process is able to produce more heat and allows the microbes to survive at higher temperatures. During that time the microbes broke down all the waste material into compost, which Carpenter likes to call black dirt.

Ted Carpenter: “It is recycling, we recycle everything, see? It goes back to the earth, it goes back into being useful product. It’s taking what people call garbage and recycling it as black dirt.”

Carpenter claims his process is unique because it breaks down wood, plastics, and Styrofoam cups in just ten weeks. After testing his microbe technology on these materials, Carpenter upped the ante.

Ted Carpenter: “We added five gallons of diesel fuel, three gallons of gasoline, several quarts of motor oil. We added toxic carcinogenic compounds such at methylene chloride. Poured on anti-freeze, two different types of anti-freeze. We poured on pesticides.”

Afterward, Carpenter conducted a test, with officials from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality on hand to monitor the results. The agency’s approval was necessary for his company to continue developing its trash-eating microbe technology. The state agency concluded that the resulting compost was well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable contaminant levels. They not only tested the black compost piles but also the water runoff and found contaminants were again below the allowed levels.

Carpenter’s idea to get rid of waste isn’t entirely new. Scientists across the U.S., including Ronald Atlas, have been trying to develop a way of using microbes to break down waste. Like oil from recent spill near the Gulf Coast and the Exxon Valdez.

Atlas is a professor of biology at the University of Louisville. He says his research has shown this type of system works. But he says his experience is, the process for complex waste material still takes time - sometimes years to work.

Eva Top, a biology professor at the University of Idaho, says the science on composting is solid.

Does she think it’s plausible that Carpenter’s process could get rid of harmful components in pesticides and other toxic products? Top says she can only rely on the tests done by Idaho’s environmental regulators.

She says plants would not absorb toxins from Carpenter’s compost material. That’s because they either won’t grow or won’t use the material as nutrients.

While Carpenter’s project still has some hurdles to pass, Rattlesnake Canyon landfill manager Rick Lindstom says he feels it’s a major step toward reducing the size of landfills like his.

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