Industry Corner: Bioremediation

Article excerpt

WHY SHOULD the business economist care about the environment in his or her professional capacity? There are at least two key reasons. First, being environmentally aware, the business economist can warn colleagues about the "storm signals" in the external environment. Then the organization can properly assess the costs and benefits of voluntary or mandated compliance. Responsiveness does not mean that companies cannot oppose policies and rules that affect them. But there are countless illustrations where "being green" can pay off for companies in their internal operations. For example, manufacturers who cleanse their internal process water -- and hence their wastewater as well -- also report energy savings that come from the cleaner pipes and tubes.

Second, many market opportunities exist in environmental areas. The most obvious ones are for makers of environmental equipment and materials. These range from sophisticated instruments to specialty chemicals. Several U.S. firms became competitive at home and abroad by being inventive and innovative. One example is firms offering more fuel-efficient pollution control machinery. Companies can engage in the design, construction, and operation of cleanup facilities, in developing ecologically friendly products, and in various legal, financial, real estate, and other services related to the environment. Several water treatment chemical makers were lauded years ago for offering organic rather than inorganic coagulants (the price was tenfold higher, but their effectiveness was fifteen times higher). One firm, Mogul, won a national award for its ingenious service; like a tax accountant, it would cosign a form and guarantee that the client following its program was in compliance.

In short, environmental considerations are playing a greater role in most aspects of corporate planning these days. On the one hand, the business entity is subject to more stringent rules. Knowing about the various ways of cleanup can result in savings and goodwill. On the other hand, the ecological era offers many opportunities for entrepreneurs in small firms or entrepreneurs in large ones. Let us examine a small but fast-growing sector of the pollution control industry, which is representative of the cross-currents affecting the whole field.

OVERVIEW (DEFINITION AND HISTORY)

Bioremediation is the treatment of hazardous chemicals through the use of micro-organisms. Put simply, we use bacteria to consume the sludge. The micro-organisms may be naturally occurring or genetically engineered. These "bugs" (according to one source, "bugs" stands for "bacteria under guidance and supervision") literally gobble up hazardous waste; they destroy or detoxify the toxic chemicals. The destruction may take place in situ, which means dispersing the microbial substances into open ground; the contaminated soil or site is then cleansed. The other choice is ex situ, which means removing the toxic-infested matter and transferring it into a closed system, such as a vessel or bioreactor for decontamination.

While not a new idea -- biological treatment of wastewater has been known for decades -- bioremediation received its biggest boost in 1989. A seventy-five long Alaskan shore line, fouled by crude oil when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef, had to be cleaned up. Marine micro-organisms enriched by nutrients proved they could do the job. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), somewhat of a holdout until then, embraced the idea and established a budget line for research. Small firms that pioneered in the field suddenly had respect and big companies began to enter the industry. The technology is here; the commercialization is starting to gather speed. Bioremediation has been used now at hundreds of sites to clean up fuel spills, leaking storage tanks, herbicides, and toxic soil.

PROS AND CONS

The advantages of bioremediation are:

1. It is a "natural" process in the sense that the bacteria, usually fungi, increase in number when the contaminant is present (which is their food supply). …