Most Shared

Admit it, you're curious: This is how cow poop becomes energy.

An unexpected energy source may be hiding in plain sight.

Admit it, you're curious: This is how cow poop becomes energy.
True
Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

Let’s get straight to the facts: A dairy cow produces around 112 pounds of wet manure every day.

Even on a farm with only 187 cows (the U.S. average), that’s nearly 21,000 pounds of cow poop every single day.

Cows produce around 112 pounds of wet manure every day. Image via iStock.


Other livestock also produce staggering amounts of waste. According to National Geographic, the 2.3 million hogs in rural North Carolina’s Duplin County “generate twice as much waste each day as the city of New York.” Holy, um, hog.

Usually, this waste is a big nuisance for farmers. It takes up space, it smells, it releases methane into the atmosphere ... the list goes on.

What if there were a way to harness all that poo for good?

Turns out there is.

The concept is simple, and the technology has been around for decades: Animal waste is collected in a closed container and broken down by bacteria through anaerobic digestion. The resulting methane gas (which naturally occurs in animal waste and would otherwise be released as a harmful greenhouse gas) is then captured and either used for energy on the farm or piped to a power plant in the area.

Poop goes in, usable energy comes out.

Waste must be collected and stored in a closed container to capture the methane. Image via iStock.

Better yet, the energy obtained from the methane gas isn’t the only benefit of using this system. Other byproducts of a biodigester on a dairy farm, for example, include: liquid waste, which can be used for fertilizer or cycled back into the digestion process; fibrous material, used for compost or even animal bedding; and waste heat, used to warm homes and other buildings on-site.

Converting animal waste to energy isn’t a technology of the future; it’s already in use all over the world.

In Colorado, the Heartland Biogas project processes both animal and food waste, sending the resulting methane to an interstate pipeline. According to NPR, the facility can process up to 1.7 million gallons of waste at a time.

Image via iStock.

In North Carolina, hog farmers are generating biogas from waste lagoons — a mixture of solid and liquid waste typically held in uncovered containers. Covering these waste pits allows farmers to capture the valuable methane gas and drastically reduces the overpowering odor these facilities are known for.

In Germany, the Munich Zoo has a small biodigestion program that converts animal waste (mostly from the elephants) to biogas, which fulfills a percentage of the zoo’s electricity needs. The waste heat, in this case, is used to warm the gorilla enclosure. Other zoos around the world, including in Detroit and Toronto, are adopting similar approaches.

A baby elephant in the Munich Zoo, where waste is converted to energy. Image by Andreas Gebert/AFP/Getty Images.

Of course, biodigesters aren't the solution for all of our energy needs.

For one, they're incredibly expensive to set up (so much so that the cost is prohibitive for most farmers). According to PBS, even a primitive digester only makes financial sense on a farm with 2,000 cows or more. But luckily, some farmers are able to reap the benefits without paying too high of a cost (such as those located close enough to a large biodigestion operation like Colorado's Heartland facility).

Many critics also point out that converting waste to energy doesn't solve our waste issue at its root — if you're putting food scraps in a biodigester, it would have been better to feed those scraps to humans. If you're putting animal waste in a biodigester, you must consider the resources it took to raise those animals and whether they would have been better spent on less intensive crops for human consumption.

But if we're going to make any progress in tackling the world's energy crisis, utilizing the waste we're already creating is a great place to start.

True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.