Microbial Biotech in Waste Management: Waste Not, Want Not

Aug. 11, 2023

Beaker with Microalgae utilizing sunlight and CO2 to produce biofuel.
Microbial biotechnology converts waste to useful products like biofuel.
Source: iStock
Climate change is a global issue that poses significant threats to our planet's ecosystem, and mitigating its effects is a daunting task that requires the collective efforts of governments, businesses and individuals. One promising solution is to explore microbial biotechnology, which leverages the metabolic diversity of microorganisms to carry out a range of applications (e.g., waste management, carbon capture, methane reduction and biofuel production) as a means of combating climate change. Thus, researchers are delving into the significance of microbial biotechnology in waste management and its potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, thereby fostering a more sustainable future.

Microbial Biotechnology and Climate Change

Poor waste management is a significant contributor of environmental pollution. It is an expensive process that requires advanced technology. Furthermore, traditional waste management methods (i.e., landfills) contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, which exacerbate climate change. In fact, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills account for approximately 20% of global methane emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions, including methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases, influence climate change through a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Essentially, these gases  act as a blanket, trapping some of the sun's heat and maintaining temperatures on Earth that are suitable for life. However, human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), significantly raise greenhouse gas concentrations, intensifying the greenhouse effect and trapping more heat in Earth's atmosphere. This global warming leads to the melting of ice and the rising of sea levels, among other effects.

Microalgae cultivation facility along the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Microalgae cultivation facility provides a sustainable approach to wastewater treatment and management.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Applying microbial biotechnology to waste management offers a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative that does not rely on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. More specifically, bioremediation reduces dependence on non-renewable resources and contributes to a more circular economy, where waste is converted to useful products, such as bioplastics, that can be reused without affecting product quality.

One powerful and sustainable approach utilizes microalgae for wastewater processing. These phytoplankton depend on nitrogen and phosphorus in water sources as key nutrients. When introduced into wastewater treatment systems, microalgae actively absorb and assimilate such excess nutrients, as well as organic pollutants present in the water. They also break down the organic matter in wastewater and reduce the accumulation of sludge, decreasing the need for costly disposal and treatment.

Additionally, the biologically rich biomass produced by microalgae serves as a valuable resource. Companies can harvest the algal biomass and transform it into various bio-based products with diverse applications (e.g., medicine, biofuels, biofertilizers and food additives). For instance, microalgae-derived biomass contains proteins, lipids and other valuable compounds that make it a suitable source of environmentally sustainable animal feedstock, thus enhancing the sustainability and efficiency of livestock farming. 

Furthermore, microalgae biomass can be harnessed to produce biofuels, such as bioethanol and biodiesel. Simultaneous usage of microalgae for wastewater treatment and biofuel production is a practical and economical approach to creating a greener energy landscape and promoting environmental sustainability. Companies can harness the power of microalgae to reduce wastewater pollution and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously creating valuable bio-based products—exploring new avenues for generating revenue and fostering a circular economy.

Benefits of a Microbial Approach to Waste Management

Rows of microalgae containers, removing CO2 from the air to make fuel.
Rows of microalgae containers, removing CO2 from the air and converting to usable products, fuels, chemicals and food.
Source: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr
The benefits of using microorganisms, like microalgae, for wastewater treatment and waste management are clear. Not only does it allow for conversion of organic waste into biogas or biofuels that can be utilized to power homes and businesses, thus, reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and lowering concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions, but it also helps solve a capacity issue. Existing landfills are becoming increasingly exhausted, and finding new sites is challenging. Microbial biotechnology that converts waste to useful products, such as compost, bioplastics and fertilizers, reduces the amount of waste deposited into landfills, thereby prolonging the lifespan of existing landfills and diminishing the need for new ones.

Challenges and Limitations

Despite the many advantages of microbial biotechnology, there are several challenges that need to be addressed prior to widespread adoption. Increased research and development are needed in order to optimize and improve microbial biotechnology applications for waste management. Additionally, regulatory and societal acceptance presents a significant obstacle, especially concerning the use of genetically modified microorganisms. Clear regulations and guidelines that balance the potential risks and benefits of microbial biotechnology are necessary to address such concerns.

Thanks to its low cost, sustainability, versatility and rapid development, microbial biotechnology offers a wide range of possibilities for combating climate change—from carbon sequestration and renewable energy production to sustainable agriculture and waste reduction. By leveraging microbial metabolic diversity, we can create eco-friendly solutions to protect our planet. Now is the time to take action and unlock the full potential of microbes to create a more sustainable world for future generations.
Microbes are highly impactful to environmental and human health amid a changing climate. Find the latest news and research on our climate change page.

Author: Yusuph Mustapha Ladi

Yusuph Mustapha Ladi
Yusuph Mustapha Ladi is a microbiology graduate from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, with a passion for the application of microbiology in biotechnology.