Bioremediation: Putting Good “Bugs” to Work for You

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Nature has a handle on waste. Bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms act as nature’s decomposers, breaking down organic matter into nutrients that are recycled through the earth’s living systems: soil, water, and air. Microbes also breakdown natural and synthetic chemicals, transforming these into raw materials and energy.


From industrial waste to aquaculture systems, microorganisms are used in treating waste products and managing pollutants through the processes of bioremediation. Employing microbes provides environmentally-safe and cost-effective alternatives to traditional management programs such as expensive chemical or physical treatments.


How Bioremediation Works

Bioremediation utilizes naturally occurring, non-pathogenic microorganisms selected for their abilities to degrade target substances. The organisms used in bioremediation include bacteria, fungi, and yeasts capable of digesting waste products quickly. This technology is not new. Microorganisms have been used for many years in composting and wastewater treatment.


Performance of microorganisms is enhanced in bioremediation applications by providing an optimal environment for growth and reproduction. Specific enzymes and nutrients may be added to support the pollution-eating microbes already present in the contaminated site. In some situations, specialized microbes are added to contaminated systems to degrade target substances. This form of bioremediation is called biological augmentation, or bioaugmentation.


Advantages of Bioremediation

Bioremediation provides several advantages over traditional management practices. Because it enhances natural decomposition processes, the public generally views bioremediation in a positive light, which benefits public relations. Bioremediation requires minimal inputs of equipment and technology, and is relatively low cost compared to other remediation treatments.


Bioremediation provides the least invasive method for treating soil and water contamination. Treatment can be made in place, eliminating the need to dig or pump large quantities of soil, sediment, or water. This limits habitat disruption and mitigates the costs and risks associated with transporting hazardous materials. The complete breakdown of contaminants into non-toxic chemicals helps businesses reduce wastewater effluent charges and meet stringent discharge standards.


How Can You Implement Bioremediation?

In a recent presentation to PEP members, Tonya Decterov from Bionetix International, Inc. discussed ways members can utilize bioremediation to solve environmental problems in a diversity of industries. While bioremediation may not be the right solution for every situation, the technology has broad-scale application in the petroleum, food and agriculture, sanitation, mining and other industries. Likewise, municipalities can apply bioremediation in managing landfills and treating wastewater.


Industrial Applications. Bioremediation is employed in a diversity of industries to treat wastewater and sludge, decompose soil contaminants from spills, and manage hydrocarbons. Microbes are used to digest fats and oils, volatile organic compounds, nitrates, and other pollutants like ammonia and phosphates. While heavy metals like lead are difficult to treat, many metals have been successfully detoxified in old mining sites. Formulations for wastewater treatment are specific to the target contaminant such as those found in pulp and paper production, vegetable farming, or manufacturing byproducts.


Bioremediation also provides cost-effective, biodegradable cleaning solutions. Because these products are safe and easy to use, they can be utilized anywhere from hospitals to food production plants. Common applications include:

  • Cleaning grease traps and drains
  • Septic tank treatments to digest solids and reduce odors
  • Removing grease and oil in parking garages, service stations, and along roadways
  • Cleaning storage tanks, garbage containers, and restrooms



Petroleum Industry. Bioremediation is particularly effective on petroleum products, as microbes readily digest hydrocarbons like gasoline, diesel, crude oil, and benzene. Use bioremediation to manage oil and gas contamination related to drilling, oil production, storage, and transportation. Successful applications include treating water or soils contaminated with petroleum products, and managing wastewater from oil production.


From accidental spills to long-abandoned service stations, contamination of soil and water with petroleum products is an on-going threat. Biological digestants can help protect soil, groundwater, waterways, and sensitive ecosystems.


Municipal Applications. Bioremediation is an effective solution for managing organic compounds, odors, ammonia, and toxins in public wastewater. Replacing some chemicals with biological alternatives can reduce volatility from shock treatments and increase efficiency of wastewater management. Microbial digestants are also used in treating overflow form sanitary systems, including septic tanks and disposal fields, and managing hydrocarbons in sanitary sewers.


Landfills are also well-suited to bioremediation. The role of microbes in decomposition is well known, such as observed in composting yard waste or manure. On a larger scale, bioremediation is used to treat leachates from landfill drainage systems and scrub air to reduce methane gas production. Recent research and development of bioreactor landfills hold great promise. Bioreactor landfills enhance microbial activity to rapidly degrade organic waste.


Agricultural and Food Production Industries. Bioremediation is widely applied in agriculture, aquaculture, food processing, and related fields. Microbial agents are effective for cleaning insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers from soils where spills or over-application occurred. Both chemical fertilizers and organic products such as manure are managed through bioremediation.


In agricultural systems, biostimulants and soil enhancers support plant growth while providing protection against pathogens. Aquaculture producers use biological products to manage production ponds, while hog and poultry farmers use bioremediation to manage animal waste. Natural feed additives are replacing chemical products to enhance the immune system, improve health, and increase yields in livestock including fish, meat, and dairy animals.


Challenges and Considerations

Like all technologies, bioremediation has limitations and special challenges. Microbes are living agents and require specific conditions for growth and development. Ensuring the appropriate temperature, oxygen level, pH, and nutrient level in the environment is not always easy. Likewise, the rate of material degradation varies with environmental conditions. Finally, not all materials can be degraded by microorganisms.

That said, the diversity of applications and relative ease of employing bioremediation make it an appealing choice for managing many environmental contaminants. Bioremediation offers solutions for a number of problems throughout the Mobile Bay area including marine pollution from industrial effluent, oil exploration, sewage, and ship traffic. Opportunities exist for PEP members from across disciplines to embrace this ever-expanding technology.


Thank you to M2 Solutions, an expansion of Manufacturers Packaging for flying Ms. Decterov from Canada to share her expertise with PEP members. M2 Solutions focuses on service life solutions for infrastructure, industrial and commercial repair solutions and as you will hear about today, biological solutions for industrial and commercial applications.