Found Objects: Sludge

Anaerobic bacteria, courtesy the CDC/Gilda Jones



A multinational corporation was investing in environmental initiatives, and I hoped to write about them. Their main project was highly technical; for background they had me email two university scientists. The scientists could not easily explain to a layman what they did, and besides, they admitted, what they were working on would not solve what the multinational saw as a PR problem anytime soon and probably never entirely.

The multinational invited me then to look at work being done on bioengineered bacteria by one of their vendors. The smaller company’s bacteria would eat almost anything carbon-based and poop an alkene sludge that could be used to manufacture almost anything else: animal feed, carpeting, clothing, fuel. They hoped to scale up their process to industrial levels and sell the products to the multinational and its competitors. I drove to a distant city, where the smaller company had its labs and offices in an unexpected technology park among homes in a neighborhood.

The worker at the security desk got my name and sent me up. A sign on the company’s door said to lift the phone to get permission for entry, but no one answered. An employee walking past said he would get the HR guy. A few minutes later that man came out and helped me try to sign in on an electronic pad on wall. I had registered beforehand, but it did not recognize me. The printer would not print a name badge, but there were no lanyards for it anyway.

The multinational’s strategy man, a lawyer, had flown in for my briefing and tour. He stressed to me how lucky I was to have the lab’s sustainability officer there and kept apologizing to her that we were small fry. She struggled to say, Everybody counts.

Millions of generations of the bacteria had been bred to make it work more efficiently to their purposes, then it was genetically modified for a variety of specific product applications. I made the obvious joke about getting eaten because I was carbon-based, and the sustainability officer said their bacteria were anaerobic and could not live outside the lab. A scene for an apocalypse-by-infection movie was filmed in their offices, she said, but they had to stop telling visitors about it during COVID because people were already worried about genetically-modified organisms getting loose.

On the tour, we wore white lab coats and big wraparound protective glasses. The sustainability officer put on a dosimeter and wondered why I had not been issued one. She said there were dangers and told us it would be fine but not to touch things and to stick with her. She said carbon monoxide was the main hazard—it kept the holding vessels anaerobic—but there were also wash stations at every door. Gasses were hard-piped from room to room, and there were little and big incubators to breed the bacteria, and centrifuges, and computers. It was interesting and then repetitive.

At the end of the tour, she and the lawyer and I sat in a large conference room for a few minutes. I had asked throughout the tour about real numbers in turning back global warming using their process, at least as it applied to the multinational’s business. The lawyer said he had recently seen something about using a similar process to eat carbon dioxide from the ocean, which would help deacidify it so it could sustain life. The sustainability officer looked noncommittal.

The sustainability officer talked about the large number of brilliant people she was often in contact with in her field—in government, NGOs, corporations, and academe. They shared data; it was a collaborative effort, they all understood, to try to develop technologies to save humanity from itself. She was a mother and wanted her children to have a world to live in. She and her colleagues were all working as hard and fast as they could.

“We’re not gonna make it,” she said suddenly, summarily. She thought it would all be over in 40 years. We sat there. She was polished and polite; did I want a bottle of water to take with me?

The multinational’s man and I spoke in the lobby of the building. I asked how his company was doing, since everyone knew they had faced a public-relations disaster and lawsuits, and were losing business to a European rival. He laughed bitterly and shouted they were tanking, had I seen the market? They’d be lucky to survive. He asked me to give him a lift to the airport on my way out of town, but I was not leaving town, and it was rush hour and out of my way. I left him to get an Uber instead.

I drove a short but complicated route through heavy traffic to my hotel. I needed food but found I barely had the strength to choose a place in a strange neighborhood, let alone go pick it up. There was always pressure in my work to use whatever I had taken time to look at, since deadlines were constant, and sometimes I invested my own money on spec and only got reimbursed if it published. Sometimes I made something very good from almost nothing. In this case, there was nothing but an ending.

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