Does your car run on turkey innards?

Changing Worlds Technologies is making diesel out of turkey guts and other waste products. They use a process that is somewhat like an accelerated version of how nature makes petroleum products out of organic waste. Their claim is that this is a wonderful way to generate badly needed fuels out of waste we were having trouble dealing with anyway.

At the moment it’s costing them US$80/barrel to produce, and diesel is selling at US$50, so there are some issues of cost effectiveness, but you don’t have to tweak the universe too hard to make this much more competative.

The real question for me is whether it actually solves anything. reproduces a Discover magazine article (there is also a follow-up article) and then adds some nice commentary at the end (be sure to scroll down to the big black box at the bottom where their material lives).

As they point out, this might be an interesting way to use certain wastes, but there are significant issues. Chief among them is the fact that this process still produces petroleum-based fuels which we have to burn to use, releasing greenhouse gases. Some have said that this is “carbon neutral” since all that carbon was already “in the system” in the form of turkey waste or whatever. By this reasoning, however, everything is “carbon neutral”, since we’re hardly importing carbon to the planet from outer space. What’s key is the form the carbon takes, and where it sits. A huge mountain of coal is a lot of carbon, and while it may have many downsides, it does not (in that form) contribute to greenhouse gases. You have to burn it for that to happen.

Further, the economics of this process pre-suppose the existence of (potentially very) large quantities of icky wastes as input to their system. While it’s certainly true that we’re up to our ears in such wastes at the moment, one might wonder whether it would be better to be putting our efforts into reducing the quantity of these wastes rather than converting them into another form that brings with it a host of different problems? As William McDonough and Michael Braungart say in Cradle to cradle, if you’re going the wrong direction, slowing down doesn’t fix things. In the end you have to turn around.

Or, as says,

Burning everything in sight is not a solution to society’s problems. Quite the contrary, it encourages still higher levels of consumerism and petroleum use by giving the incorrect impression that burning everything will make ours a sustainable culture.

Thanks to Wayne for the initial pointer to this Slashdot article.

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