The Toronto Zoo is turning poop into power and helping the environment in the process

·3 min read
Deserrai Buunk is a Grade 3 keeper in the Toronto Zoo's African Savanna region.  (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)
Deserrai Buunk is a Grade 3 keeper in the Toronto Zoo's African Savanna region. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)

When visitors at the Toronto Zoo observe the rhinos, they're probably not thinking about the huge piles of manure the animals are producing — but Deserrai Buunk sure is.

That's because it's part of her job to collect it. And it's physically demanding work.

"At this point, we're sitting at 500 to 600 pounds in a day," Buunk told CBC Toronto. That's more than 225 kilograms.

As a Grade 3 keeper in the zoo's African Savanna section, Buunk's role is much more than just collecting poop. She also takes care of the animals, observes their habits and spends time with them.

But all that dung she's dealing with does have a purpose.

WATCH: How the Toronto Zoo is helping the environment by turning poop into power:

As part of a project more than 10 years in the making, a facility called ZooShare started producing power for 250 homes this year. Located on the zoo site, it does that by taking 3,000 tonnes of zoo manure and 15,000 tonnes of local food waste annually and breaking it down to produce electricity. It also generates heat and fertilizer.

Kyla Greenham, the manager of conservation programs and environment at the Toronto Zoo, says its part of the zoo's sustainability platform to reduce its energy consumption and its greenhouse gas emissions.

"With over 5,000 animals, we produce a lot of manure every year," she said.

"By diverting our waste manure to the bio-digester, not only are we trying to deal with the amount of manure waste we're producing every year but we're producing a renewable energy source for the Ontario hydro grid."

The zoo came up with the idea back in 2007, so Greenham says it's very exciting that the project is finally up and running.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

'We're extracting value where others see waste'

Daniel Bida, one of the founders and directors of ZooShare, says the manure arrives from the zoo regularly.

"They bring the dump truck here that collects from all the animal enclosures and they leave it in our manure shed where our operator takes the manure and drops it into the receiving tanks," he explained.

"There, it's mixed with the commercial food waste we receive from grocery stores, restaurants, event halls and companies."

Bida says the two organic streams together go into the digestion tank for 24 days where they make biogas — a mixture of methane and other gases used to make electricity. After the digestion is complete, the organic matter goes into a storage tank and is used as fertilizer in Rouge Park. He says the process is entirely self sufficient.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

"The heat we make from burning the gas to make electricity is then used to keep the whole process going."

Bida gives tours of the plant and says educating the public about the process is one of his favourite aspects of the job.

He hopes to add a second digestion tank to the site to expand the project.

"We're extracting value where others see waste; that's what excites me about biogas in general."

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