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February 8, 2014

Using Phytoremediation for Environmental Cleanup

The world is “going green”, and phytoremediation is an environmental cleanup technique that means going green literally as well as figuratively. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, phytoremediation is “the use of green plants to remove pollutants from the environment or render them harmless.” ARS plant physiologist Leon Kochian commented, “Contaminated soils and waters pose major environmental, agricultural, and human health problems worldwide.” You can say that again! Wikipedia explains the process in more technical detail.

Phytoremediation was first used in the early 1990s, and it has been tested at more than 200 sites nationwide. Favorable spots for this treatment have low levels of contamination in large areas at shallow depths. It can be used to clean up the soil, surface water, or groundwater.

Phytoremediation is accomplished by growing particular plants in areas of contamination, and allowing the plants to consume the contaminants from the soil/water through their root systems. Plants chosen for this use must be able to clean or diminish the contaminant of that area and acclimate to local climate. They must also have deep dense root structures, fast growth rate, high biomass, the ability to take in large amounts of water, and must be easy to plant and maintain. Native plants are used whenever possible.

BioHavens by Floating Island International. Flickr links: 1 & 2.

Floating Island International has created FTWs–floating treatment wetlands–that “biomimic” nature’s own cleansing process:

“Constructed of durable, non-toxic post-consumer plastics and vegetated with native plants, BioHaven islands float on top of the water, providing a beautiful habitat for birds and animals. But underneath the surface, a dynamic process takes place.

Microbes are responsible for breaking down nutrients and other water-borne pollutants, but to be effective, they need a surface to stick to. The floating island matrix, with its dense fibers and porous texture, is the perfect surface area for growing large amounts of microbes (in the form of biofilm) in a short time. Nutrients circulating in the water come into contact with these biofilms and are consumed by them, while a smaller fraction is taken up by plant roots. Suspended solids slough off into the benthic zone below the island. Organic solids stick to the biofilms and become the base of the freshwater food web.

These pathways represent a concentrated wetland effect–nature‚Äôs way to clean water.”

Not only does phytoremediation get the job done, but it also looks good doing it! You don’t have a big ugly treatment plant to detract from the beauty of the natural environment. One company in France is using bamboo plantations to clean up “grey wastewater” from local wineries. It has been so successful that they have now planted four more of these bamboo plantations. Bamboo is an excellent plant for phytoremediation due to its dense root system, hardiness, and fast growth rate.

If you have an area in your community that has experienced soil, ground, or surface water contamination, maybe starting a project using phytoremediation would be the way to go. Creeklife.com can help you raise money for your project and get it off to a great (and green!) start.

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Posted by Mark Contorno.

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