Cleaning up hazardous waste is expensive and often not entirely effective. Industry professionals must determine the best way to remove pollutants from soil and water without causing more contamination.

Bioremediation offers an environmentally conscious alternative for removing hazardous waste that accelerates natural processes. Microorganisms are responsible for decomposing everything in the environment, including both organic and inorganic materials. Here’s how bioremediation can help environmental conservation.

How Bioremediation Works

If you were to spill oil, chlorine or any other type of contaminant onto the ground, over time surviving microorganisms would begin to eat the contamination. Over time, the contamination would eventually degrade and neutralize in the environment. Microbes also break down carcasses, produce and plant matter in a similar manner.

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Bioremediation is the acceleration of a naturally occurring process. Industry professionals analyze the microorganisms responsible for breaking down different types of contamination. Once they determine which kind of contamination exists in a specific area, they create the optimum living conditions for the microorganisms to flourish.

In some cases, the bacteria needed to break down pollutants might not be present. In these instances, professionals can add the bacteria to the area to jump-start the cleanup process. Additionally, factors such as the temperature, available nutrients, water, carbon, oxygen and the pH of the surrounding environment must be considered.

Differences Between In-Situ and Ex-Situ Bioremediation

With an ideal environment, the microorganisms begin to multiply rapidly and work much more quickly than they would under normal circumstances. Pollution and other detrimental conditions degrade at a much faster rate. Once the waste is gone, the microorganisms will eventually die off or disperse to other sources of contamination.

Two different types of bioremediation exist, in-situ, or in place, and ex-situ, or off-site. In-situ bioremediation is an attractive option for constrained or challenging-to-reach sites. Ex-situ bioremediation is often used on sites with available space and contamination close to the ground’s surface. The method of treatment used usually depends on the type of pollutant and the specific site conditions.

Environmental Benefits of Bioremediation

Bioremediation doesn’t require the addition of extra chemicals to already-contaminated areas. Introducing new chemicals to neutralize contamination may lead to the spread of contamination or create unsafe living conditions. Additionally, chemicals can eventually make their way to aquifers or other water bodies, leading to new sources of pollution.

Since the byproducts of bioremediation are environmentally neutral, they can often be recycled and reused for other applications. Chemically treated soil or organic materials may not be as environmentally hazardous as they were previously. However, they are often not suitable for reuse.

Conventional treatment methods for hazardous waste involve removing material from a site and transporting it to facilities to be treated. During the transportation process, pollutants may spread to other areas. After treatment, the waste material is either sequestered in a contained area or disposed of in a landfill. Bioremediation can often be performed in-situ, or in place, and in-place remediation may lower cleanup costs.

In-situ bioremediation has a smaller carbon footprint compared to traditional treatment methods. Since cleanup takes place at the site, equipment and vehicles aren’t needed to transport material long distances. Emissions from fuel are reduced, and energy is conserved.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, bioremediation also makes it possible to clean up contamination in otherwise difficult-to-reach areas. Contaminated sites in cities or other urban areas don’t have a significant amount of excess space. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to remove soil or contaminated material and move it off site. Performing treatment in place may be the only viable option.

Uses for Bioremediation

Bioremediation is a viable option for many different types of contamination, two of the most common being petroleum products and chlorine compounds. Historically, gas stations, factories and dry-cleaning facilities were notorious sites for spills and dumping excess chemicals into the ground. Before new construction can take place on these sites, the contamination must be dealt with to the satisfaction of state and federal agencies.

Unfortunately, bioremediation isn’t a viable option for all types of contamination at this point. Heavy metals, including cadmium and lead, aren’t easily broken down by microorganisms, even under ideal conditions. Future research may find more efficient organisms that can digest high volumes of heavy metals. Until that point, bioremediation isn’t the most suitable option.

Nuclear waste is also unsuitable for bioremediation. The waste products from nuclear material are highly radioactive and harmful to the environment, even in small quantities. Nuclear waste products must be sequestered and allowed to decompose on their own. Future research may find microorganisms that can safely accelerate this process. Bioremediation offers an effective, environmentally friendly solution to reducing the cost of cleaning up environmental waste.