Waste-eating microorganisms offer alternative to dumping


Most people picture a hazardous waste worker as a robot-like figure lumbering along in a cumbersome white suit. But some of the most effective cleanup workers are not even visible to the naked eye, much less protectively garbed. Employed in the millions, microorganisms that consume and convert waste into harmless material are finding more and more jobs these days. But "bioremediation" has yet to make major market inroads as companies strive to get their processes recognized as a viable alternative to the usual dig-and-haul remediation scheme in which waste is either dumped in a landfill or burned.

Increasing costs and sensitivity to dumping and incineration have stimulated the development of a number of on-site treatments including bioremediation. However, regulations and treatment standards set by the EPA and many states are based on existing technology, and bioremediation cannot yet compete effectively with incineration.

"The world is not ready for bio yet," says Ted Fischer, president of Du Pont Environmental Remediation Services (DERS, Wilmington, Del.). The Environmental Protection Agency's incineration-based standards rule out virtually all bioremediation methods. Unless the seemingly endless "how clean is clean" debate is settled or interim laws are passed, it will be difficult for bioremediation to qualify as the method of choice.

More than half of the $1.5 million in biotech sales DERS has chalked up so far this year have been for evaluation studies. Fischer says that for every 100 evaluation studies, the company might get one remediation job. Despite current conditions, Fischer is by no means down on bioremediation. "We're going to break through in the next five years," he says.

Another frequently cited market barrier is customer uncertainty about the effectiveness of bioremediation. Maureen Leavitt, project technical coordinator at International Technology's (IT) biotechnology center in Knoxville, Tenn., says company employees spend almost half of their time educating customers and regulators. IT is not deep into research and development but instead concentrates on getting new methods into use. IT has used biotreatment on a significant scale on at least a dozen sites and estimates 1989 revenues of $5-8 million for biotreatment projects.

Leavitt says IT follows a "conservative approach" in promoting -- bioremediation. "There are no magic bugs," she says, adding that the business has suffered from "snake oil" tactics of others. According to Leavitt, some people have unrealistic expectations biotreatment. "It's not a proven technology yet . . . Bioremediation is just one cog in a complex treatment train."

IT is nonetheless bullish on the long-term prospects for bioremediation. Drew Park, director of business planning, says the company is reviewing a technology development plan with bioremediation at the forefront.

What bioremediation needs is "to gain credibility with a proven track record," Park says. A key to the success of bioremediation will be the formation of strategic alliances and joint ventures between remediation firms and biotech specialists, he says, and most of the industry seems to agree.

Grant Ferrier is editor of the Environmental Business Journal in San Diego, Calif.

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