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Chapter: Environmental Biotechnology: Biotechnology and Waste

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Composition of biowaste

Biowaste of animal origin such as that contained in sewage and soiled animal bedding contains unabsorbed fats, proteins and carbohydrates, resulting from incomplete digestion of ingested food of animal and plant origin.

Composition of biowaste

Biowaste of animal origin such as that contained in sewage and soiled animal bedding contains unabsorbed fats, proteins and carbohydrates, resulting from incomplete digestion of ingested food of animal and plant origin. In addition, abattoir waste would include all of the above and a substantial proportion of fats and protein, derived from the slaughtered animal. In addition, materials excreted by the animal include metabolic breakdown products such as urea and other small nitrogen-containing materials, for example partially degraded bile pigments. Live and dead bacteria, normally resident in animal gut are also present in the biowaste and so contribute their own fats, proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic acids.

 In addition to all the components listed above, biowaste of plant origin will contain cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Cellulose is worthy of note given that estimates of over 50% of the total organic carbon in this biosphere is to be found in the form of cellulose. This is unsurprising, since wood is approximately 50% cellulose and cotton is almost 100% cellulose. This macromolecule is an unbranched polysaccharide comprising D-glucose units linked by β 1 – 4 linkages (see Figure 2.3). It is this β link, rather than the α link found in its animal equivalent, glycogen, which prevents cellulose being broken down by the metabolic pathways in animals. The initial step in the degradation of cellulose is the removal of a glucose molecule from one end of the long chain which is a reaction catalysed by the enzyme cellulase. Where cellulose is degraded in animals it is by bacteria resident in the animal rumen or gut, which possess cellulase. There are also many bacteria living outside the gut, both aerobes andsoil anaerobes (Monserrate, Leschine and Canale-Parola 2001) responsible for cellulose metabolism. Another major constituent of plant material, the hemicel-luloses, are also polysaccharides but the subunit in this case is the five-carbon sugar D-xylose, also joined ‘head to tail’ by a β 1 – 4 linkage. Otherwise, hemi-cellulose is not related to cellulose despite the similar name. Unlike cellulose which comprises only D-glucose and in an unbranched structure, the family of hemicelluloses has side chains and these may comprise any of a variety of sugars one of which may be the five-carbon sugar, arabinose. The function of hemicel-luloses in plants is to form part of the matrix which holds the cellulose fibrils together to improve strength and rigidity of the plant tissue. Lignin is also a very abundant material in plants and is estimated to comprise almost 25% of the dry weight of wood. Totally unlike cellulose or hemicelluloses, which are polymers of sugars and therefore are carbohydrates, lignin is a polymer of the two amino acids, phenylalanine and tyrosine. Despite its abundance, its structure is poorly understood, in part a tribute to the fact that it is extremely resistant to degrada-tion and therefore presents problems to the analyst. Fortunately for the natural process of carbon and nitrogen recycling on which our biosphere depends, fungi degrade lignin and, in addition, some microbes, like those resident in the gut of termites can perform the same function.

 Biowaste makes up a huge percentage of refuse; some 2500 million tonnes arise each year in the European Union alone (Lemmes 1998) and this is a figure which many authorities suggest increases by between 3 – 5% annually. Although the focus of much of this is firmly centred on the biowaste component of municipal solid waste (MSW), since this is the kind of waste which most directly concerns the largest number of people, it is important to be aware that this does not represent the full picture, by any means. Of these 2500 million tonnes of biowaste, 1000 million is agricultural in origin, 550 million tonnes consists of garden and forestry waste, 500 million is sewage and 250 million results from the food-processing industry, leaving MSW only to make up the remaining 200 million tonnes. The scale of the problem is large, one study suggesting that an annual total of between 850 – 1000 kg (total solids) of material suitable for biolog-ical treatment are produced per person (Frostell 1992). There is general agreement that biowaste accounts for around a third of the industrialised world’s municipal waste stream and that a further 30% or so is also expressly biodegradable, such a definition including paper. In the light of this, the fact that the potential for the development and application of approaches based on biological processing has not yet been more rigorously or comprehensively explored remains some-what surprising. Moreover, with society in general increasingly committed to the ‘green’ ideals of maximised recycling and the rational utilisation of waste, it is difficult to see how such goals can realistically ever be expected to be met, without significant attention being paid to the biowaste issue. In this respect, the writing may already be on the wall, since the demands of legislation appearing in Europe, the USA and elsewhere has begun to drive fundamental reappraisals of the way in which all refuse is regarded. In particular, regulatory changes designed to reduce the amount of raw biodegradable material destined for landfill must ultimately come to promote biotechnologies which can treat this material in an effective and more environmentally acceptable way. While predicting the future is, of course, notoriously difficult, it seems likely that biological processing will assume a more central role in future waste management regimes, which presents both exciting possibilities and some genuine challenges to the industry itself. However, in order to understand why, it is important to consider the current difficulties posed by biowaste under traditional disposal routes.

 Although a number of changes in the whole perception of waste have led to a variety of relatively new options receiving attention, generally throughout the world, the vast majority of refuse is dealt with either by means of landfill or

incineration. Different countries and administrations have favoured one or the other at various times and, as with all things to do with waste, local custom and circumstance have played a major part in shaping the current status quo. While it is beyond the scope of the present discussion to examine this in any depth, Table 8.1 may help to provide some indication of the wider situation.

 Although there has been considerable development in incineration technology over the years and today’s facilities, with their energy recovery, power generation and district heating potential, are a far cry from the simple smoking stacks of old, for biological origin waste, mass burn incinerators cannot be viewed as the ideal solution. Hence, while the incineration v. landfill argument still rages, and has been revisited with renewed vigour in some circles in the light of the implications of recent European legislation on landfill, the fact remains that, at least from the standpoint of biowaste, both are nothing more than disposal routes. Significant amounts of wet organic material, which is itself largely composed of water to begin with, may be an inconvenience to the incinerator operator; the situation in landfill is worse.


Left to its own devices, all discarded biological waste gradually undergoes a natu-ral process of biodegradation, typically beginning with autolysis and culminating in putrefaction. The speed at which this progresses is governed by a number of factors such as the nature and freshness of the material, the temperature, mois-ture and so on. When this happens in the open air, or in the upper levels of the soil, decomposition is aerobic, the organic material being mineralised and carbon dioxide (CO2) released as the major gaseous product. However, thoughbiowaste awaiting collection in dustbins and even, to some extent, when only recently delivered to landfill, initially begins to break down in this way, older putrescible material, buried deeper, experiences conditions effectively starved of oxygen. In this environment, the degradation process is anaerobic and miner-alisation continues with broadly equal amounts of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide being produced. This resultant mix is known as landfill gas and typi-cally contains a number of trace gases of varying chemical composition. At the functional level, the mechanism of this reaction is very complex, with hundreds of intermediary reactions and products potentially involved and many requiring additional synergistic substances, enzymes or other catalysts. Methanogenesis is discussed more fully elsewhere, but it is possible to simplify the overall pro-cess thus:

  Organic material −−−> CH4+ CO2+ H2+ NH3+ H2S

The production of methane is a particular worry in environmental terms since, although there is some disagreement as to the exact figure, it is widely accepted as more than 30 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than a similar amount of carbon dioxide. It was precisely because of these concerns that the European Union began its drive to produce statutory controls on the amount of biodegrad-able material permitted to be disposed of by this route. Without going into lengthy descriptions of the final legislation adopted, or the history of its stormy 10-year passage into European law, it is fair to say that the elements of the Landfill Directive which relate to biowaste require considerable changes to be made in waste management practice. This is of particular importance for those countries, like the UK, with a previously heavy traditional reliance on this method. A series of stepped major reductions in the amount of material entering landfill are required and a timetable has been imposed for their implementation. By 2020 at the latest, all EU member states must have reduced their biowaste input into landfill by 65% of the comparable figure for 1995. According to the Directive, ‘biodegradable’ is expressly defined as any ‘waste that is capable of undergoing anaerobic or aerobic decomposition, such as food and garden waste, andpaperand paperboard ’ (DETR 1999a). This has particular implications for currentlylandfill-dependent nations. The most recent Environment Agency figures show that 32% (by dry weight) of MSW production in the UK is paper. This represents its single largest biodegradable component, using the Directive definition, push-ing the traditional biowaste element into second place by 11% (DETR 1999a). Taking into account the additional contributions of 1% textiles, 3.5% ‘fines’, 4% miscellaneous combustibles and noncombustibles at 1%, the grand total of ‘biodegradable’ inclusions in the UK waste stream comes to 62.5%, based on figures from this same study (DETR 1999a). Making up more than half of the total on its own, paper is, then, of great potential importance, and it is clear that no attempt at reaching the levels of reduction demanded by the new law can afford to ignore this material.

The question of methane production, so central to the original thrust of the legislation has been addressed by requiring sites to collect the landfill gas pro-duced and use it for energy generation, conceding that it may be flared off where for some reason this is not possible.

A second potential environmental problem typically associated with landfills is the production of polluting leachates, which can be aggravated by the dumping of biowaste. Water percolating through the site tends to leach out both organic and inorganic substances which can lead to contamination of the groundwater. The persistence of pathogens and the potential translocation of many biologically active chemicals have recently become of increasing concern in the light of growing (though largely circumstantial) evidence of health problems associated with proximity to certain landfill sites. However, there is considerable variance between many aspects of different facilities and, additionally, much uncertainty as to the extent of any possible exposure to chemicals found therein (Vrijheid 2000). The UK government commissioned the world’s most extensive study to date into the potential health risks of living within 2 kilometres of landfills, to examine the incidence of low birth weight, congenital defects, stillbirths and cancers in the vicinity of 9565 landfill sites, with a sample size in excess of some 8 million pregnancies. This revealed a 7% increase in the rate of both chromosomal and nonchromosomal birth defects (Elliott et al. 2001) but the expert advisory committee observed that this represented only a small excess risk and might well be accounted for by factors other than those directly attributable to landfill itself. While domestic landfill operations, then, may well be of little significant threat to those around them, the situation for hazardous waste sites, though admittedly less well investigated, appears somewhat different.

The findings of the recent, new investigation (Vrijheid et al. 2002) of data originating from a smaller study of certain European landfills which accept haz-ardous waste (Dolk et al. 1998) suggests a 40% increase in chromosomal birth defects and a 33% increase in the risk of nonchromosomal abnormalities, within a 3 kilometre radius. However, whether the observed increase in risk arises merely from living near such a hazardous waste site, or as a result of other factors as yet unknown, remains unclear. Greater understanding of the true scope of land-fill releases, their potential toxicity and the possible exposure pathways will be required to permit more meaningful interpretations of the epidemiological data to be made.

Even where there is nothing to suggest an adverse effect on the local popula-tion, high concentrations of biowaste-derived leachate remain undesirable. Such rich liquors provide heterotrophic micro-organisms with a ready and abundant source of food. In conditions of relatively low organic loading, a dynamic equi-librium is reached between the bacteria breaking this material down and the autotrophic organisms, typically algae, which subsequently make use of these breakdown products. The oxygen balance works, since the requirements of the aerobic decomposers is offset by the contribution of the photosynthetic algae present. However, under conditions of high organic loading, the oxygen demand of the bacteria exceeds the carrying capacity of the water and the algae’s ability to replenish it. Hence a downward spiral develops, which ultimate leads to locally anaerobic conditions.

Although ‘waste’ is itself one of the three key potential intervention points for environmental biotechnology, it should be clear from the preceding discussion that there is considerable capacity for biological waste treatment technologies to contribute heavily to another, namely the reduction of pollution. To try to set this in context, it is quite common for landfill leachate analysis ranges to be quoted based on the average values obtained from a number of established sites. However, this can lead to a significant distortion of the true picture since, particularly for newer landfills (where the biochemical activity tends more to early acetogenic fermentation than ‘old’ post-methanogenic or even semi-aerobic processes) a degree of under-representation often occurs for some substances. For example, ‘young’, acetogenic leachate is typically below pH 7 and of high COD, though much of the latter is biodegradable. The bacteria responsible for the biological breakdown at this point in the site’s life may be anaerobic, aerobic or facultative anaerobes. In older landfills, methanogenic bacteria predominate, which are strict anaerobes and can only assume and maintain their dominant position in the absence of oxygen. Such conditions develop in time as the normal sequence of events involves the early acetogenic bacteria gradually using up the available oxygen and producing both the necessary anaerobic environment and acetate as a ready food source for the methanogens which follow in succession, as the site ages.

The full picture of the pollution potential of landfill leachate is more complex than might at first be supposed, if for no other reason than, though it is spoken of as if it were a single commodity, leachate is a highly variable and distinctly heterogeneous substance. It is influenced by the age, contents and management of the landfill of its origin, as well as by the temperature and rainfall of the site. Moreover, all of these factors interact and may vary considerably, even in the relatively short term, not to mention over the decades of a typical landfill’s lifetime. The general range of values for landfill leachate established by the Centre for Environmental Research and Consultancy (CERC) study (Cope 1995) makes this point very clearly, as shown in Table 8.2.

Some measures have been written into the legislation in an attempt to minimise the possibility of pollution, such as the requirement that all sites, except those taking inert waste, employ a leachate collection system and meet universal minimum liner specifications. However, it is obvious that a method of dealing with waste which removes the bulk of the problem at the outset must be a preferable solution. The use of biological treatment technologies to process wastes has, then, considerable future potential both in direct application to waste management itself and in a number of allied pollution control issues which currently beset this particular industry. Coupled with the twin external driving forces of legislation and economic forces in the commercial arena, this means that waste biotechnologies seem certain to assume greater importance in the coming decades.

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