Hi, I’m T.H. Culhane, and behind me in the picture on the left are live hippos in the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, while behind my wife and son in the picture on the right is an elephant. The reason we both have food waste grinders in our arms is because we humans don’t have the mighty teeth and jaws that these behemoths have, and without such teeth and jaws it is very difficult to chew up organic matter to the point where bacteria can quickly and efficiently turn it into energy and fertilizer. Because of this, organic garbage tends to build up faster than nature can properly recycle it, and this creates environmental and social problems that need to be solved.
But once equipped with machines that act as the same powerful teeth and jaws, we human beings, like the giant herbivores of the African savannah from which we all developed, can become powerful transformers of the abundant solar energy that plants absorb each day, making it readily available as fuel and fertilizer to make our lives better. And that’s why we and our friends take food waste grinders with us wherever we go.
From the the urban shantytowns, jungles and savannahs of the Middle East and Africa to the last villages at the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal, I have been using food waste grinders as the essential tool in my arsenal to fight poverty, disease, deforestation, malnutrition, and pollution while guaranteeing energy security. Because of the importance of this technology I treat food grinders in a “don’t leave home without ‘em” way. This is no exaggeration. --
Because food grinders are not available in many countries, because they are usually unknown as part of an environmental solution set, and are since they are often prohibitively expensive in developing countries because of high poverty levels, constrained markets and extraordinarily high import duties and other trade restrictions -- factors that sometimes make an equivalent unit cost up to 5 times the cost we can buy it for in the US - I am frequently seen on airplanes and buses carrying a food waste grinder like these Insinkerators with me wherever I go.
Even my wife, when she brought our baby to visit me in the slums of Cairo where I was working on solving food waste issues, brought a food waste grinder in her backpack. She carried from the US to Germany and on to Egypt so that our Solar CITIES colleagues Mostafa Hussein, a young carpenter and Hussein Farag a retired metal worker and accountant whom we trained as renewable energy experts, could install the first food grinder in the thousand year old Islamic city to serve the solar heated rooftop biogas system we had built on Hussein’s roof. While doing my Ph.D. studies on hot water and cooking fuel, when my wife and I were living in this vermin and fly infested slum a place where our friend’s baby was actually bitten and killed in her crib by rats that couldn’t get into the sealed garbage can, we learned that the best way to deal with such plagues was to grind organic wastes and put them in a tank on the roof to be transformed into safe clean fuel and fertilizer.
In fact for the past 4 years I’ve presented the importance of food grinding on stages around the world, like the stages in these pictures from National Geographic in Washington DC, in Spain, in Egypt and at environmental conferences from Aspen to Istanbul, declaring that the most important environmental technology for solving our environmental challenges in the 21st century is actually the humble “garbage disposal”, which I have been calling “compost companion and biogas feedstock preparation device”.
At home in Germany, at a National park in Botswana, at a healing center in the Swiss Alps and aSolar Village in Portugal, and in Brazil we showed people that after grinding food it no longer takes 3 to 6 months to create a humus rich compost, but merely 3 to 6 days. We also demonstrate that the usual prohibitions against using meat and bones in urban composters or citrus and acidic fruit for vermiculture worm composting no longer apply. All organic wastes, once ground up, can rapidly be turned into value added products for the garden or landscaping. Our first line of defense therefore is to teach people that the so-called "garbage disposal" really is the best compost companion and that they can immediately start grinding and putting all food wastes into the compost bin or, if they don’t have one, they can even pour the ground up scraps directly into the garden and simply cover with mulch. But once this local use of ground up food wastes has been established it becomes a simple matter to show people that much more can be done with the high value of the ground up food scraps. We teach people how to construct an anaerobic digester so that from that same food waste one can win not just fertilizer but clean, safe and effective renewable energy through biogas.
I have long believed that biogas digesters were the "elephant in the room" that few people seem to see; an ancient, natural simple solution to literally all of our organic waste problems, from toilet wastes to food wastes, available instantly everywhere, turning liabilities into assets, eliminating deadly diseases and deforestation and plagues of rats and flies and other vermin, and indoor air pollution and environmental pollution and providing inexhaustable clean renewable energy and returning vital nutrients to the soil, actually creating soil and making deserts bloom and feeding humanity. Yet despite these tremendous low cost high impact advantages, this solution has been “hidden in plain sight” for literally thousands of years? What is it, I asked myself, that makes this elephant invisible...?
A biodigester, like the Puxin family sized digester shown here at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad, Iraq, that I've altered for illustration, is simply an artificial stomach -- a chamber into which put ground up food and a starter culture of the archaea and bacteria that are found in all animal manures and even lake mud. You use an insinkerator as the sacred elephant or sacred plastic cow’s mouth, put a pipe at the back for the fertilizer to come out, and another out the top to let out the gases that naturally occur as food is fermented -- just like what happens in you when you eat too many beans, and shazam, you have a biogas system.
When I visited an urban slum in Pune India in 2009 and learned how easy it was to build a home-scale biodigester that could turn food wastes into methane and liquid compost it was a revelation to me. I had visited large scale biodigesters in the early 2000s but had never really understood the sheer simplicity of the design. One needs a stomach with a mouth, a fertilizer outlet and a gas outlet, I realized that, but in India in 2009 they showed that a small family could make their own from two simple water tanks, one upside down inside the other. A feeding pipe served as the throat and an overflow pipe for the fertilizer. The gas collected in the upside down tank floating on the water that filled the tank, and this rose as the gas was produced, taken out of the top, and sank as the gas was used. It turned out to be something anybody could do at any scale and even the little one my wife and I made here produced about two hours of cooking gas every day from the previous day’s leftovers and scraps. That same amount of gas could also be used to run a 2 kW electric generator for about 45 minutes, enough to charge batteries to run the lights all evening.
This was a revelation to me because while studying for my UCLA Ph.D. in Urban Planning and international development I had spent years living and working in the slums of Cairo teaching people how to build their own solar hot water systems from local materials thinking that this was the most efficient way to use Egypt’s abundant sunshine. What I didn’t know until my trip to India was that fermenting food wastes is really the easiest and most efficient way to obtain and use solar energy. Worldwide we waste between 40 and 60% of the stored sunshine that photosynthesis puts into our food . Capturing that energy for use as heat or electricity is not only easier and less expensive to do than building solar thermal or photovoltaic panels, but takes care of solid waste and health problems at the same time. So it is a clear win win.
Once I learned this and began to apply my energies to teaching others how to build small scale biodigesters in urban as well as rural areas an incredible world of possibilities began to open up. In India we had seen how the people would soften their food waste in buckets in the sun and then mash it up by hand but we realized that the labor involved and the need for larger more expensive tubes to keep the system from clogging would deter most people from adopting home scale food waste digesters en masse. When we burned up several blender’s in Egypt just as the systems were getting popular, I started making trips to the US and bringing Insinkerators in my luggage. Ultimately, through the vision of US Embassy Director of Public Affairs Frank Finver, we began working with Al Najah University and the Palestinian Wildlife Society in Palestine and Eco-Gas in Israel and started promoting the idea of integrating food waste grinders into the digester design.
There are now many small scale biogas business starting up around the world. Our friends at Eco-gas in Israel, who are now working in partnership with the Palestinian Wildlife Society, have patented a “kitchen island biodigester” for indoor or outdoor use that has a built in food grinder, faucet, cutting board, stove and even an hydroponic garden that turns the fertilizer into food for the kitchen, making a complete cycle. While there they let me take biogas heated showers; the energy came from the previous day’s ground up food scraps. The secret really is getting the surface area to volume ratio between microbes and food particles maximized and we predict that someday soon biodigesters will become common home appliances, winning useful quantities of supplemental energy and nutritious food at the head of the waste stream before sending any surplus to the waste treatment plant.
In the meantime Solar CITIES Solutions continues our work training people around the world in the creation of food-waste-based biodigesters at the home and community scales. Through Insinkerator’s generosity we have been able to introduce food waste grinders to policy makers as well as local families and NGOs all over the planet, from village chiefs from the Maasai tribe shown above to the former president of Nigeria, Oluwasegun Obasanjo shown below. Working with Ohio State University/Berkley Urban Planning professor Charisma Acey (photo right) and her students the work has expanded to Ghana. In places, such as the Great Plains Conservation field camp in Africa shown above, we installed food grinders along with macerating toilet pumps to carry all organic wastes, including fecal material, into local community built biodigesters that turn all of the wastes into clean burning methane gas and nutrient rich liquid fertilizer, dramatically reducing the potential for water borne diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.
Because of the dramatic potential for small scale biogas to immediately address life threatening challenges in waste management, sanitation and energy security, the US Embassy and the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology brought us to Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq last spring to work with engineers like Dhia Baiee and Taha Majeed from MOST, shown here, and engineers and humanitarian officers like Karin Mayer and Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, Ms. Jacqueline Badcock from UNAMI, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, to introduce rapid deployment food-waste fed biogas systems throughout the country based on the ARTI India and Puxin China models. With the expertise of our Iraqi colleagues, who had already been working with and proving the value of both wet-waste biogas and dry biomass gasification, confidence in the potential of the systems led to the insertion of this highly effective "low hanging fruit" solution into the worldwide "Greening the Blue" campaign of the United Nations, starting with builds we did at the UN compound in Baghdad.
This summer Insinkerator corporation sponsored my trip to the Puxin biogas company in Shenzhen China, whose products we had introduced to the Philippines and Iraq, and based on our experiences and needs in the field the inventor and engineers developed a new improved turnkey mold based biogas system for us to use in our Brazil favela sanitation improvement initiative and elsewhere. This system enables us to build 4, 6 or 10 cubic meter digester tanks with the same metal plates, used over and over again, for just the cost of cement and pipes. With this system we can rapidly replicate effective digesters throughout the poorest sections of Rio in time for the World Cup and Olympics.
In Rio, sponsored by Insinkerator, we are working with Architecture for Humanity, Catalytic Communities, Viva Rio and 4 favela communities to build and train others to build food and toilet waste Puxin systems that will turn the nightmare of garbage and raw sewage from a problem into a solution. We start this fall with an elementary school in Niteroi which will receive all the cooking fuel and some electricity for its 80 students from the cafeteria and bathrooms. Then we move on in our trainers of trainers model to a montane forest community like the one seen in the movie “Rio” , a coastal shantytown, and a congested urban slum that was once the site of drugs and crime, like the one featured in the movie “The Hulk”. Here we will prove the model of small scale urban biogas for the world, just in time for the world cup where the world will be watching. On Twitter we tweeted, "Something big and green is coming to the favelas of Rio to help everybody win as we prepare for the Olympics... and no, it is not the Hulk!"
To make this a reality of course, we need food waste grinders to be the teeth and jaws of our new Elephant-sized biodigesters. And in true Emerson solutions fashion, we were blessed to have Julio Porta (gerente de desenvolvimento de negócios da InSinkErator no Brasil) volunteer his time and fly all the way down from Emerson in Sao Paulo to Rio and spend all day with us, not just hand delivering Brazilian Insinkerators as gifts for our partners, which would have been gift enough, but engaging in a thorough training presentation in Portuguese for all stakeholders AND actually working with us through the night to build a functioning mini-biodigester for the day-care center whose owners donated the land for the elementary school where we will build the big biogas tanks. This is the kind of commitment to excellence, quality and social welfare that makes the Emerson/Insinkerator team stand out in the world.
Finally, in that same spirit, Insinkerator engineers led by Dane Hofmeister and Don Gapko worked over time for our relief effort and invented this extraordinary bicycle powered insinkerator for our work in parts of Brazil and Africa and the Middle East and other regions where electric power is in short supply. This is the most ecologically sustainable, green food grinding technology in the world. We are now experimenting with this great new appropriate technology -- a true case of “Design for the Other 90%” -- trying out the prototypes with our digesters at Mercy College in New York. We will be field testing them in Brazil this spring.
So when I go around the world telling people that we really can “grind virtually any kind of food waste into an unending supply of electrical power for a city, or cooking fuel for a village” and they say “but it’s never been done before” I can say with complete confidence that, thanks to this wonderful partnership with Emerson/Insinkerator, “Consider it Solved!”