Picture this: You're out walking with your dog, he stops to do his “thing” in the grass, and you, the dutiful neighbor, bend to pick up the above mentioned “thing” with your always-on-hand poop bag, and you think to yourself, “What a shame it is that all this poop has to go to waste. There must be a better way!”
OK, maybe that wasn't your thought, but it was someone's thought, as that virtual light bulb we all know so well from the cartoons lit over someone's head one fine day in the park, and the dream of putting poop to good use in a public space began to become a reality. In fact, it must have been that very lightbulb that inspired the idea: methane powered gas lamps for the park.
The idea is simple: to harness the natural process of anaerobic digestion, which is actually a series of processes by which biodegradable organic materials (in this case, feces) are broken down by microorganisms that are able to live in an oxygen free environment. Using a specially designed “digester,” this process has been used in other contexts for the purpose of gathering the resultant gases that are released from the organic materials, making it possible to power simple machines with this naturally occurring “digestive” system.
Rural dwellers have found success in using digesters for the home by disposing of their animal, human and organic household waste into an above or below ground digester, where the waste is confined, allowing the natural process of anaerobic decomposition to take place. Methane gas rises to the top of the tank, where it can then be drawn into a pipe that feeds into a stove or other gas powered machine. And dairy farmers as well have found this a useful method for the disposal and repurposing of cow waste.
Using this simple idea, a team calling themselves The Park Spark Project came up with the idea to place digesters in public spaces, such as dog parks, in the hopes of inspiring the community to see waste in a different light: as something that is useful. It is also inspiring people to learn more about animal waste.
According to some sources, a significant number of pet owners believe that their animals' waste is “natural” and will not do any harm if left to degrade in the ground or water. However, this is an incorrect – and dangerous – assumption. Dog feces is known to carry e.coli, leptospira, salmonella and giardia, amongst other pathogens, which can be carried into the surrounding water supply. Parasites such as the roundworm, which is shed through the feces, can remain alive in the soil for years, infecting animals and humans who come into contact with the infected soil. It is for this reason that pet feces cannot be used in the household composter, or buried in the yard. A simple Google search on pet waste challenges shows that cities across the U.S. are working to resolve the environmental problems that are associated with pet waste. There are few safe methods for disposing of animal waste.
While throwing your dog's waste into the trash is better than leaving it on the ground, it is still a concern for many who worry that these bagged “specimens” may be around for generations to come. That is where the creators of the waste digesters come in. The Park Spark digester is an above ground tank, with an opening for “feeding” the bagged waste into the tank, a crank for stirring the contents of the tank, and an external pipe that carries the rising biogas to a gas powered device – in this case, a standing lamp.
This past summer, the first Park Spark methane gas powered lamp was installed in a dog park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it has been enthusiastically embraced by the park's visitors. In the “How it Works” section of their website, the Park Spark team states, “As long as people are walking dogs and throwing away their waste, methane will be produced and the flame will burn as an eternal flame.”
The team at the Park Spark Project hope to inspire more communities to adopt this technology in the hopes of reducing the amount of waste in the country's landfills. You can find out more about how to get you community involved at the Park Spark Project's “Get Involved” page.
Photos courtesy of The Park Sparks Project.