San Francisco Sees Pet Waste as Energy Source

San Francisco is trying to make usable energy from the droppings of an estimated 240,000 cats and dogs. Norcal Waste Systems hopes to convert pet waste into methane gas. Norcal's Robert Reed tells Linda Wertheimer about the technology.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

President Lyndon Johnson famously said that you can't make chicken salad out of chicken something, well, something frequently compared to shinola. But the city of San Francisco may one day come close, sort of. San Francisco wants to make useable energy out of the waste of its 240,000 resident cats and dogs. Norcal Waste Systems is studying the feasibility of converting pet wastes to methane gas.

Robert Reed is communications director for Norcal Waste Systems. He joins us from his office in San Francisco. Mr. Reed, welcome.

Mr. ROBERT REED (Communications Director, Norcal Waste Systems): Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: You already collect and recycle San Francisco's trash. Have you discovered a way to segregate pet wastes and recycle it efficiently?

Mr. REED: We're on our way. We've been doing our research and development for two years on this. And we would collect it as we do now. We would just collect it separately and then we would put it together with things like broccoli and brussel sprouts and cantaloupe skins, degradable material, and sending the combined material to digestion. It's a conversion process where microorganisms begin to eat and digest the materials that are fed into the digester. And it off gases, is the scientific term. It produces a methane gas.

WERTHEIMER: Could you, for example, with the wastes produced by San Francisco's pets, would you be able to turn the lights on in schools with that energy? How much energy would it be?

Mr. REED: You would be able to turn the lights on in a number of schools. Dog poop has three times the energy in it that cow manure does. I can tell you that if you took, say, 80 tons of food scraps and you processed them, directed them to the digestion process, you could produce enough electricity to power a thousand homes.

So there are 10 million tons of pet wastes generated annually in the United States. San Francisco set a goal of zero wastes to landfill by 2020. That means all garbage will have to be either recycled, reused, composted or otherwise diverted away from landfills. And San Francisco, today as we speak, is at 63%. Sixty-three percent of San Francisco's garbage is diverted away from the landfill today.

So we're proving that things like this can be done. Frankly, it's an edgy area of recycling.

WERTHEIMER: So you're going to start in one park when?

Mr. REED: I don't have a specific date. I would guess sometime this summer. Certainly, within a year we'd like to start in a number of parks. We are already collecting from pet care businesses across San Francisco.

WERTHEIMER: Robert Reed is communications director for Norcal Waste Systems, which is pioneering the transformation of dog wastes into useable energy in San Francisco. Mr. Reed, thanks.

Mr. REED: You're welcome.

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