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Dog Poop and the Environment: Art and Power

Dog poop can be an environmental pollutant or potential fuel.

While dog owners are generally quite proud of their pets, there is one aspect of living with a dog that no one is pleased with, namely the fact that they produce poop. Recently, a number of environmental activist groups have been trying to raise the guilt level of dog lovers because of the fecal matter that their pets produce. We are not only talking about the smelly stuff which gets on your shoe when some inconsiderate dog owner fails to pick up after his pup, or the possible contamination which such waste matter might produce when it gets into water supplies, but rather the larger issue of whether dogs contribute to global warming by producing greenhouse gases.

At one level those with environmental concerns have a point. Dogs do produce a remarkable amount of waste material which can be better appreciated if we add up the total canine fecal output in a large metropolitan area. Consider, for example, the city of Chicago. It has a human population of 2.8 million people and is also home to approximately 250,000 dogs. An average dog will produce approximately 0.75 pounds of fecal matter each day, which, summing across all of the dogs in the city would be approximately 187,500 pounds of dog poop passed in every 24 hour period. Summing the output across an entire year, we reach the astonishing total of 68,437,500 pounds of dog waste per year for this one metropolis.

The real environmental problem arises when this waste material decomposes, Like the fecal matter produced by all animals, as it begins to break down gas is released, most of which is methane. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat. Given the fact that we are starting with more than 68 million pounds of poop in our one test city, we should not be surprised to find that over the year we are dealing with a very large amount of methane being produced-more than 102,000,000 cubic feet of this gas. That is a lot of atmospheric pollution. Picking up after your dog really does not solve the problem since even in the garbage dump the fecal matter will decompose, and as the dogs' waste breaks down, this biogas will be released.

So what is a dog owner to do? Actually an answer has been suggested by an engineer who has gone on to become a conceptual artist. Mathew Mazzotta, a graduate student in the visual arts program at MIT recognized that the trick is to stop looking at the dog poop as waste material and the methane that it ultimately generates as a pollutant, but rather to look at that biogas as a resource. Methane burns, and like all flammable gases, it can be used to generate energy. Also, when the methane burns it breaks down into carbon dioxide and water which reduces its greenhouse effect by nearly 70 percent.

Mazzotta's idea came to him when he was watching people at a dog park picking up after their dogs and depositing bags of fecal matter into the park's trash cans. He remembered that when he had recently traveled to India he saw people there using cow poop in so-called "methane digester's" to cook food. He wondered if the fecal matter from dogs could also be used as a power source. Therefore he applied for, and received, a $4000 grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to set up a demonstration of how dog poop could be used as a power source in the form of a conceptual art installation.

MIT photo
Source: MIT photo

The final form of the installation was called "Park Spark", and it was put up in a small dog park in Cambridge Massachusetts, not far from the MIT campus. The Park Spark is actually an attractive construction, and some of the dog parks visitors initially think it's modern art, plain and simple. It is a clean lined unit, consisting of two steel 500 gallon oil tanks that have been painted a bright golden yellow and announcing "Park Spark--Transforming dog waste into energy to power public art." These are connected by black diagonal piping which is also used as a connection to an ornate old gas lit style streetlamp. This is an interactive installation, so after the dogs attending the park do their business, signs on the tanks instruct their owners to use biodegradable bags (which are supplied on-site) to pick up the poop and deposit it into an opening in one of the tanks. People then turn a wheel to stir its insides, which consist of a slurry of dog waste and water. Microbes in the dogs' waste begin to digest the fecal matter and in the process they give off methane. This odorless gas is then fed through the tanks and ultimately to the lamp where it is burned off. The lamp provides sufficient light so that people can find their dogs' droppings at night and place them in the tank. Thus, in effect, Mazzotta has produced an eternal flame, or at least one that will continue to burn as long as enough dog poop is around.

MIT photo
Source: MIT photo

Mazzotta hopes that this project will get people to think about using waste products for constructive purposes and in ways which we good for the environment. He believes that although it is unlikely that we will ever be able to power a city, or even a city block, using methane from dog poop, it could be used for other more modest purposes, such as lighting, or powering a tea wagon, or some other innovative use. He notes, "Anywhere people are walking dogs can be a source of heat and light by introducing a Methane Digester into the equation. As long as people are walking dogs and throwing away dog waste, a flame can burn."

MIT photo
Source: MIT photo

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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