Sandra Sassow wants to talk about sticky subject of waste. Just the word, the umbrella term for our uneaten – or indeed, post-eaten – food carries the whiff of dismissal (among other things). What’s in those bin bags? Just waste. What about the septic tank? Waste. Nothing of value.
But ‘waste’ – at least most of it – isn’t just some unavoidable byproduct of human life, that accumulates until the council turns up to put it out of sight and out of mind once a week. If you can get past the ‘yuck’ factor, it could be what powers your home, apartment block, supermarket, workplace or even your hospital.
“Right now that’s what we’re working on: neighbourhood-based systems,” says Sassow, who formerly worked on guidance systems for the Hubble telescope and is now CEO of SEaB energy. “We’re looking at future cities, and this prediction that the majority of humans will live in megacities around the world. When you look at what those megacities are about, could you change the way waste is handled in them, and make it decentralised and have it back at the building level so that nothing’s moving off-site?”
SEaB’s answer is ‘yes’, and its solution is a closed-loop system that essentially turns a neighbourhood or business into its own power plant, eliminating a large amount of what would otherwise be thrown or flushed away and instead using the decomposition process to produce biogas that is converted into electricity.
The technology is getting smaller all the time: its Flexibuster, designed for deployment in urban environments, currently fits inside a shipping crate, as does its agricultural cousin, the MuckBuster. You won’t have one sitting by the shed anytime soon, but once you have a sufficiently dense population – such as a housing block – or a business that generates a large amount of waste, cycling degradable material back into the power supply starts to look more and more appealing, both commercially, and environmentally. Perhaps most importantly of all: wherever you find humans, you find ‘waste’. And humans never run out of waste.
“If you look at wind and solar, they’re intermittent; they’re based around a resource that isn’t always there,” Sassow explains. “Using waste, you’re tying [power] to the amount of waste available on the site. So your fuel source is constant; your output of energy can be consistent, constant and predictable.”
A key hurdle is that aforementioned yuck factor. ‘Renewable energy’ means solar panels, the near-biblical feat of harnessing the ocean and great big wind turbines sprouting magically out of the sea. It does not immediately, for most people, mean a shipping container filled with humanity’s unspeakables. But while ‘traditional’ renewables most often involve some form imposition on nature – earth replaced by panels, skylines pricked with steel windmills – SEaB’s containers fit comfortably into the urban landscape: oversized recycling bins that also make the lights work.
“Where it’s more accepted is where waste is already segregated,” Sassow says, of the challenges of taking SEaB’s containers global. “Where the general ethos of the culture or country is to reuse, it’s easier to work with them in that environment,” she says.
Sassow isn’t yet able to talk about some of its most recent applications. But two case studies are already proving the efficacy of and interest in its technology: an NHS hospital in Southampton, and an nonprofit American housing development called Place, through which the subsidies from the energy produced will, it’s hoped, keep San Francisco creatives connected both electrically and culturally with the city centre.
“It’s based around creating low-cost housing around urban areas to retain young companies and artists in the fabric of the cities, and the way they’re getting the subsidised housing is through the use of waste and solar together as a source of power which they’re selling back to the grid,” Sassow says.
In the home of the future, that childhood advice to eat your greens takes on a whole new importance.