Modesto considers turning pond scum into cash

Modesto may have found an environmentally friendly way to capitalize on the adage that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

The city could sell the algae that grows in its roughly 1,000 acres of sewer ponds at its Jennings Road wastewater treatment plant to Algix, a Mississippi-based company that uses the green goop to make biodegradable plastic. The goop is dried and turned into pellets that are used in making plastic.

Modesto and Algix officials stress this venture is in the very early stages and, while promising, nothing may come of it.

“There still is a lot to do, but we hope we can do a deal with Modesto,” said Greg Wellman, an Algix vice president. He also is a longtime Northern San Joaquin Valley government official, having served as Merced County’s administrative officer and as a top official in other communities.

Before joining Algix in July, Wellman was interim general manager of the Delhi County Water District in Merced County for about a year. He said the district has been selling its algae to Algix through a middleman for at least a couple of years.

Wellman said he expects to bring a proposal for a pilot program to Algix officials within about a month. If the program is approved by Algix and Modesto and is successful, the two could talk about having the city supply the company with algae on an ongoing basis. Wellman started talking with Modesto officials several months ago about this possibility.

Modesto is attractive because it has one of the largest sewer pond systems in the United States, and its algae is high in protein, a necessity when making biodegradable plastic. Utilities Director Larry Parlin said Modesto built the ponds decades ago to provide secondary treatment of its wastewater.

He said at the time, ponds were the lowest-cost alternative and were ideal to handle the wastewater produced by Modesto’s canneries. He said land costs are too expensive today to make ponds cost-effective.

The wastewater sits in the ponds for about a month, and microorganisms in the water eat the waste and clean the water. Algae grows especially well in the nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich sewer ponds.

Parlin said algae has been one of the stars of the resource-recovery movement and industry for the past decade. For instance, there have been efforts to use algae in biofuels. There even is a Congressional Algae Caucus, which was formed in 2013 to keep its members informed about the latest developments to use algae as a food, fuel and in other applications.

Parlin said he’s been skeptical of some of these efforts, but he sees real promise using Modesto’s algae to make a product that is good for the environment and brings money to the city. “You have to take these projects with a grain of salt,” he said. “But I feel like this one has potential.”


Photo: Sewer ponds at Modesto’s Jennings Road wastewater treatment plant are seen at the top and right. The ponds produce algae, and Modesto could sell the algae to a company that produces biodegradable plastic using dried algae. CITY OF MODESTO CITY OF MODESTO

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