The bioremediation imperative

In 2009, a team of scientists from around the world came together to create what they called a ‘Planetary Boundaries Framework‘. This framework identified nine processes that must be monitored to maintain life on earth, including ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater composition, land systems change, nitrogen and phosphorous flows, and atmospheric aerosol loading.

Crossing the recommended thresholds for any of these processes could result in abrupt and possibly irreversible environmental changes. We have already gone far beyond the safe threshold for four of these boundaries, researchers say.

The rate and scale at which we are degrading the planet are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. Most people see environmental issues as something that happens in another dimension. Most think we can stop and remedy the situation at any time. That the crisis is not looming large, ready to explode into a doomsday scenario, but the hysterical imaginings of a few.

This study, however, shows that the problems are not linear as most people tend to see them. If we inflict enough damage on our planet, we risk shifting it to a whole new state and the damage spirals out of control in an irreversible multi-scenario domino effect.

Our environment, the food we consume and our general health are all directly correlated. We can’t protect one without also protecting the other two. Conversely, if we don’t protect one, we are also harming the other two.

As individuals, as communities, as economies, we each have a responsibility to protecting life as we know it and safeguarding it for future generations. When it comes to matters like the environment, we humans tend to react rather than take action.

As individuals, we can all do our bit: we can recycle, carpool or use public transport, reduce our carbon footprint, compost food waste. Not so difficult to implement if there is will. Within our communities and as economies, we are faced with the more substantial challenge of building consensus around affirmative environmental action and the imperative to fight apathy. Even if we can build consensus at all levels, the damage to our environment has crossed the threshold where it was possible to reverse without intervention.

Common intervention techniques like burning, incineration, burial and landfill dumping are expensive to implement and take a huge toll on the environment. In most cases, they do not even solve the problem but compound it by merely delaying the inevitable.

The solution is bioremediation, a technique as old as time. Bioremediation is a process used to treat contaminated media, including water, soil and subsurface material, by altering environmental conditions to stimulate the growth of microorganisms and degrade the target pollutants. Simply put, bioremediation is the use of either naturally occurring or deliberately introduced microorganisms to consume and break down environmental pollutants, to clean a polluted site.

Bioremediation employs microbe technology. The first lifeforms on earth, microbes are essential to life. They have always broken down waste, and humans have always used them wittingly or unwittingly in agricultural, domestic, and industrial activities. They can protect crops, promote sustainable farming, treat wastewater. Nothing is a challenge for these microscopic powerhouses.

Environmental regulations are increasingly making bioremediation the intervention of choice. It is also a cost-effective solution without unfavourable implications on the environment. In most cases, it provides a more permanent solution.

There have been a number of successful, large-scale projects that have used bioremediation to reverse ecosystem damage. These include the clean up of the Ganga at 52 sites using ‘sewage eating microbes’ or the treatment of sludge from last year’s Chennai oil spill.

There are many companies looking to innovate solutions to stem if not turn back the tide of environmental damage. One such company on the cutting edge of remedial innovation is VolkerWessels subsidiary KWS, who in 2015 introduced a unique concept to build plastic roads as a sustainable alternative to traditional asphalt roads. The PlasticRoad concept involves recycling plastic waste into lightweight modules with hollow interiors that can be fitted with cables and plastic pipes and allow excess water to drain.

Bioremediation is the most sustainable alternative and by far the most promising solution to the environmental degradation timebomb.

They say we don’t inherit the earth but borrow it from future generations. It is imperative therefore that we act now to repay this debt to the future.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.