April 11, 2006 — -- Dogs are known as man's best friend for good reason. They frolic, they play, they swim and they can go most anywhere we want them to.
There's just one thing about them that makes them just short of the perfect pet -- the poop.
Much poop has to be picked up by many a dog owner, since most states have laws that say it must.
"It just seems so strange to me that we're locking this poo in these bags, and it's going to be there forever," said one San Francisco dog walker. "The bags are never going to biodegrade, and a future alien civilization that comes here to check us out will wonder, 'Why did we save all this poop?' You know, what's so precious about the dog poop?"
Robert Reed works for Norcal Waste, a trash hauling company in the Bay Area, where residents already recycle more than 60 percent of their waste.
Local officials have set a goal of sending no waste to landfill by 2020.
"That's an ambitious goal, and they said to us, 'You know, we're going to have to deal with the dog poop and the cat poop. There's quite a bit of it here,'" Reed said.
There's 6,500 tons of it produced in the Bay Area every year.
It is a source not only of waste but bacteria and pollution -- several studies place canines as third or fourth worst contributor to the bacteria such as E. Coli found in contaminated waters.
Absent an outbreak of widespread coprophagia -- feces eating, in other words -- this problem only stands to get worse in these pet-loving United States , so experts are looking for answers for constructive solutions on what to do with all that poo. In Alaska, the Natural Resources Conservation Service recently issued a booklet on "Composting Dog Waste," largely aimed at folks with kennels.
Reed and Norcal Waste came to the local officials and said, "Let's turn it into energy."
"Why shouldn't we put it to use?" said Donna, a local resident out at the dog park.
"The interesting thing about dog poop is that there's a lot of protein in there," Reed said. "We feed our dogs a very rich diet here in the United States."
Leftovers, it turns out, are a key ingredient in this concoction. A subsidiary of Norcal collects more than 300 tons of food scraps a day from restaurants and homes. It turns it into a fertilizer for organic farms and vineyards.
"We're using dog poop and cantaloupe skins and broccoli and brussels sprouts, and we're taking the calories from those materials, turning it into energy," Reed said.
"If you took one ton of a degradable material, dog poop and food scraps together, you could produce 50 gallons of liquid fuel," Reed said. "If you took 80 tons of this material, you could produce enough energy to produce [power for] a thousand homes."
Trucks take the food scraps from restaurants and pet droppings from doggy day care, and then it gets ground up into what's called manufactured biomass, which goes into a machine called a digester that converts it all into methane gas.
Burning that gas produces energy in the form of electricity, natural gas and liquefied natural gas.
Norcal hopes to have a citywide collection program under way in the coming year.
It's not a coincidence that San Francisco is the place where poop power is coming to fruition. Not only because the city's liberal politics manifest themselves in environmentalism and, shall we say, a willingness to experiment but also because there are lots of dogs and cats here.
"There's 240,000 dogs and cats in San Francisco, so there's a lot of those businesses [surrounding dogs and cats]," Reed said. "Dog walking is a very lucrative business in San Francisco."
If Norcal's plans work out, there's similarly gold in them thar poops