A Load of Crap

Is a new program to produce energy from dog poop a scientific breakthrough or just another zany idea out of San Francisco? Take our quiz and find out!

Last week, city officials announced a groundbreaking program to turn dog doo into energy -- enough to power an electricity-generating turbine, a home stove, or anything else fueled by natural gas. San Francisco is the first city in the United States to launch such a pilot program, and waste management consultants say it's the perfect place to start: Residents here recycle more than 60 percent of their garbage, and animal feces make up nearly 4 percent of the 6,500 tons of residential waste produced annually. Within the next few months, Norcal Waste Systems employees will start using biodegradable bags and dog-waste carts to collect droppings at Duboce Park; the dung will then be tossed into a methane digester, a tank in which bacteria called methanogens break down carbon dioxide into microbial food. After a few weeks, methane gas is produced as a byproduct, which can be piped into any number of natural gas-generating devices. Still, some energy analysts believe the process is too expensive -- each methane digester costs about $1 million -- and point out that natural gas, electricity, and landfill space are comparatively cheap. Are you an apologist for the energy potential of dog poop? Take our quiz and find out!

1) When you first heard of the idea, what was your initial reaction?

A) You mean we weren't supposed to be recycling our dog poop? Oh, shit ....

B) Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out whether it's OK to recycle pizza boxes that have a little bit of cheese stuck to them. (Bonus point for adding: "In my experience, the answer is invariably 'yes.'")

C) Who'da thunk we'd be powering our cars on dog poop before we were driving them across a retrofitted Bay Bridge? What a world.

2) The technology behind methane digesters was introduced about 20 years ago in Europe, where more than 600 machines are now in use on farms. It has since spread to rural America: Nine operate on California dairy farms, and other livestock ranches -- especially chicken and hog farms -- also employ them. In addition, Third World countries have used more rudimentary versions of the device. As William Brinton, president of Woods End Laboratories Inc., a Maine company that specializes in compost technologies, told the Discovery News Web site: "Often Third World users just put animal waste in plastic bags that are placed into holes in the ground. Straws or tubing poked into the bags divert the gas into homes. You can then light the gas, and there's your heat." What do you think of the concept?

A) I'm no scientist, but I could have told you years ago that farts have the power to light up a room.

B) My God. Do you know what this means? If we could harness the energy from an average collegiate male road trip, we could power the space station!

C) How in the world did Bush not mention this during his push for renewable energy in the State of the Union address? Oh, right -- his aides knew he'd crack up.

3) For the past decade, San Francisco has been operating a groundbreaking food composting program: Norcal Waste Systems collects 300 tons of food scraps per day from homes and restaurants, which are then converted into fertilizer for vineyards and organic farms. With more than 240,000 cats and dogs living in S.F., officials now hope to take advantage of our reputation as an animal haven. "The city's asked us to look at dog waste specifically," says Norcal Waste spokesman Robert Reed. Do you think the program is the right fit for San Francisco?

A) Sure ... just don't look at dog waste too specifically, if you know what I mean.

B) Of course. The only problem I foresee in San Francisco is determining whether that pile of crap on the sidewalk is from a dog or a human.

C) Yes. I just wish we could also harness the rage of Noe Valley housewives whose neighbors' dogs drop one on their front lawns. The city would light up like a Christmas tree.

4) The technology has not yet advanced to the point that it's feasible to install smaller methane digester devices in private homes, but the digestion is nonhazardous, waste management experts say. "The resulting gas does not have much smell," Brinton said. "Sometimes there is a slight egglike sour odor in the containerized process, but this can be easily filtered out." Do you think the process sounds safe?

A) Sure. But filtered out by whom?

B) I don't know, but Bill Brinton must be the star of any cocktail party he attends.

C) Shoot, I was hoping we could get one for the house. Then I could tell Mom I'm just recycling, rather than preparing to deposit a flaming bag of poop on Old Man McRooney's front porch.

5) Now that you know more about the technology, do you have any particular questions for city and waste management officials?

A) Yeah, can they use bullshit? We've got plenty of that in San Francisco.

B) Hmm ... are you sure they'll be able to find enough dog crap in Duboce Park? (Bonus point for saying this with a straight face.)

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