Turning Manure Into Gold: The Fecal Economy

Behold the new black gold. Dark and warm, it oozes water and teems with beneficial properties. It even harbors precious metals.

And boy does it stink.

Call it the excrement economy. Between the rise of fecal transplants and water strained from latrine sludge, the poop market is hot. Besides removing toxic waste, the commodification of crap could mean big bucks, especially in the developing world. Sounds crazy, but look at what happened with used cooking oil — now processed into biofuel instead of dumped into landfills — which went from being worth nothing in the early 2000s to about $1.50 a gallon today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Livestock Water Recycling processes manure into commercial-grade fertilizer and distills the water for irrigation and farm animals.

But feces can do more than fuel cars — it can save lives. Doctors are using it to treat patients with intestines ravaged by Clostridium difficile, a potentially deadly bacterial infection that triggers diarrhea up to 15 times a day. C. difficile is thought to invade when antibiotics wipe out the normal gut bacteria ecosystem, or microbiome. But infusing intestines with bacteria from donor stool — a fecal transplant, usually via enema — has a 90 percent success rate. (And that’s just on Planet Earth. As fans of the Matt Damon vehicle The Martian know, human feces could well be used to grow extraterrestrial potatoes.)

Catherine Duff, founder of The Fecal Transplant Foundation, expects the fecal transplant industry “to grow very quickly,” especially since the CDC announced in February that it’s the only known treatment for C. difficile infection. The CDC also estimates that 100,000 people in the U.S. get recurring infections, qualifying them for the procedure, which costs nearly $3,000, according to a 2014 Clinical Infectious Diseases study — and might not be covered by insurance. Duff says six medical device companies have consulted with her in as many months. And in 2012, OpenBiome emerged as the first-ever stool bank, selling medical providers equipment and freeze-dried donor stool. Marketing research firm MarketsandMarkets expects the microbiome market, including probiotics and fecal transplant drugs, to grow 22.3 percent between 2019 and 2023, to $658 million.

Manure treatment could also represent a heaping share of the poop market. Grand View Research predicts the organic fertilizer industry will grow about 15 percent between 2013 and 2020, to a whopping $1.3 billion. Most farms use synthetic fertilizer — raw manure not only reeks, it also crawls with disease-carrying germs. Enter Calgary, Alberta-based Livestock Water Recycling, whose machinery processes manure into commercial-grade fertilizer and distills the water for irrigation and farm animals. Today, the company has systems (which cost up to $1.5 million to install) in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.

But Frank Reef of Netherlands-based company Enviu, which sponsored a contest to develop ventures for reusing human waste, envisions the fecal industry flourishing in crowded slums with no sewage or waste treatment facilities, especially in parts of Africa and India. And large communities make building a poo-cycling infrastructure easier.

Poo-to-power developers in the U.S. contend with plummeting natural gas and oil prices, not to mention the wind and solar energy industries. When the idea was first conceived, says Peter Janicki, founder of Janicki Bioenergy, it had little competition. “But the marketplace changed.” Indeed, Grand View Research predicts modest growth for the waste-to-energy market between 2013 and 2020 — 6 percent, to about $37.6 billion.

Poop from 1 million Americans could hold a whopping $13 million worth of metals.

Poo-derived water could also enjoy higher demand in the developing world, where potable water is scarce. Janicki’s Omni Processor, a machine that turns sludge from sewer treatment plants, septic tanks and latrines into electricity and clean water, is set to start running in Dakar, Senegal in May. Since bottled water is so pricey in Dakar, most locals drink germ-laden tap water. To lower the ick factor, Janicki plans to start with handing out bottled water extracted with the Omni Processor for free before setting a price far below that of currently available bottled water.

Your own toilet might even be a goldmine. A study presented at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in March found that human feces bears traces of valuable metals — like gold, silver, even platinum. Now, scientists are trying to use chemicals called leachates to extract them. An earlier study calculated that poop from 1 million Americans could hold a whopping $13 million worth of the stuff, according to the AFP.

But Jack Plunkett, CEO of the Plunkett Research Group, says the poop business will remain “more of a niche market.” It faces hurdles — regulatory and environmental — not to mention consumer acceptance, especially for technologies like the Omni Processor. Still, he sees “growth potential.”

Smells like good news, at least for some poo-trepreneurs. Duff credits a larger shift toward sustainable products and alternative medicine, led by “people who prefer a more natural approach to problem solving.” Looks like the green revolution might get a little browner.

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