How “Clean” Is Chicken Poop?

Environmental groups think the idea of converting chicken manure to energy stinks.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

With more than 8.5 billion meat birds and approximately 275 million laying hens in the U.S., this country has quite a lot of chicken poop on its hands. Industrial chicken farms produce an unsustainable amount of manure. There’s only so much chicken litter that you can spread on a field before it runs off and pollutes waterways, and there are only so many holding areas one farm can reasonably build.

In Maryland, the large chicken population on the Eastern Shore has long been tagged as a source of pollution for the threatened Chesapeake Bay. So in spring 2015, when Perdue, AgEnergyUSA and EDF Renewable Energy proposed a chicken-waste digester for a manure-to-energy project, this sounded like a good enough idea. Four new manure-to-energy projects are already in the works, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture has invested $3 million in innovative manure-management projects this year alone. The state has made a commitment to source 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. Poop is pretty renewable and is considered a “Tier 1” resource—right up there with geothermal, solar and wind.

While the largest issue presented here is the need to do something constructive with the excessive amounts of chicken manure, the underlying issue is the need to do something with it that won’t be further destructive to the environment. That’s just the problem with the plan to burn the manure as fuel, says the nonprofit Food and Water Watch:

“Incinerating poultry litter has proven to be economically inefficient and environmentally damaging, and the construction of these extremely expensiveEnvironmental groups think the idea of converting chicken manure to energy stinks. facilities almost guarantees the expansion of factory farms that produce a steady supply of manure to feed the incinerators.”

I do agree that burning poultry manure isn’t environmentally friendly (keep reading), but I don’t entirely agree with this point of FWW’s argument. Factory farms are here, and as much as they suck, they’re not going to go away any time soon. We can raise all the organic, humane, pasture-based poultry and livestock that we want, but Americans’ desire for cheap meat will continue to trump any of the social, economic, environmental, human-health and animal-health concerns that small-scale, sustainably minded farmers continue to preach. But I don’t think the addition of a manure digester is going to bring more factory farms to an area.

Poop On Fire

If you’ve ever left your chicken coop closed up for too long or have failed to clean it like you should, you know about the ammonia odors that can result. Imagine this harmful effect times thousands of chickens per industrial-broiler-production barn. Now incinerate those toxins.

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“Government scientists in North Carolina determined that poultry litter combustion plants could result in higher emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide per unit of power generation than new coal plants,” FWW reports. “According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the type of particulate matter produced by incinerators is linked to higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease as well as to higher mortality. Another byproduct of burning chicken litter, dioxin, is classified by the National Toxicology Program as a known human carcinogen.”

It’s bad news all around.

A Problem Of Scale

If you’ve read Hobby Farms or for any period of time, you already know there are multiple ways of managing the manure from chickens on your small-scale farm or backyard flock. Composting, deep-litter bedding, free-ranging and chicken tractors are truly viable chicken-waste solutions when you’re dealing with a few chickens or even a few thousand chickens. It’s when you get into the tens-of-thousands of chickens—and more—that farms fail in responsible manure management.

So what’s the Eastern Shore of Maryland—and every other poultry-production region—to do? While I’d like the answer to be “cut back on factory farming,” I know better than to think that’s actually the answer we’ll get.

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