Across the street from a bowling alley in Toulouse, a French scientist in a white smock unlocks the passageway to a hidden refrigerated laboratory where a centuries-old blight is about to be wiped up.
“Show him Project Propec,” says Cedric Cabanes, president of Agronutrition SAS, a boutique fertilizer company with annual sales of 18 million euros ($26 million), which may be on the cusp of transforming a global industry that plowed 163.7 million metric tons of nutritional muck into the soil last year. The metal door swings open and the foul aroma of the excremental experiment inside the chamber overwhelms the possibility of accurate visual observation.
“What we have here is endomycorrhiza, the molecular detoxifying mechanism for a diffusive airborne substance with a 100 meter radius that provokes an immediate intestinal ejection at a precise position,” microbiologist Hicham Ferhout says, thumping shut the steel door. “In layman terms, we’ve finally discovered how to make a dog sh*t in a specific spot, disinfect the deposit and convert it into environmentally friendly energy or fertilizer. I have to think like a dog.”
The origin of feces is no laughing matter in France, where pedestrians can come upon little piles of dog poop on pavements in even the most fashionable of streets in cities from Paris to Bordeaux. France has 8.8 million dogs, according to the Societe de Protection des Animaux. At an average of 22 pounds a year each, they produce about 194 million pounds of stools, some in public spaces, costing the country millions to clean up, according to Toulouse Deputy Mayor Jean-Michel Fabre.
Office of Tranquility
For the 400,000 residents of Toulouse, says Fabre, who’s also a veterinarian, the postcard-perfect southwestern town is otherwise soiled by 50,000 dogs that step outside to leave tons of their excrement annually. In tow are 300 sanitation workers, 100 of them with scoopers-at-the-ready, spending as much as 33 percent of the city’s 153 million-euro sanitation budget on shoveling canine fecal matter.
“Toulouse has industrial quantities to offer,” says the 50-year-old Fabre who, to illustrate his point, is standing in a sand-filled “boite de crotte,” or dog latrine, in the fragrant Jardin Pierre Goudouli behind the town hall. “Look,” the deputy mayor says with a sweep of the hand, “there’s merde everywhere but in here.”
As Fabre tells it, Toulouse’s scatological action plan to clean up the mess and turn squalor into dollars began when he in 2009 created France’s first “Office of Tranquility.” The city’s official grievance bureau in its first two years received more than 600,000 calls.
Monetizing Dog Poop
“The majority of the people complained about dog merde,” Fabre says. “We have seven dog parks, but the dogs refused to use them.”
Historical research showed that it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant to monetize dog droppings. The only successful venture in this field took place in Victorian England, when the homeless wandered city streets to collect what was then called “pure” or “scitan” (a noun in which the “sc” is pronounced “sh”) for use in tanning leather.
Fabre says solving the problem required a fresh strategy. He called Cabanes and their government-private sector partnership was born. The duo immediately decided to attack the dilemma from the rear.
“Everyone was looking in the wrong direction for an answer,” says Fabre, who began his veterinary career working with goats in Africa. “It’s not the dog owner who chooses the place his dog will poop. It’s the dog who makes the decision and it required a lot of deep thought and analysis to get the dog owners of Toulouse to realize it.”
Back in the lab, Cabanes reckons that dogs have tricked their masters into believing otherwise, inspiring the creation of what the folks at Pet Butler Inc. in Seattle call the “Turdometer.” The on-line gizmo calculates the number of American canine egesta the poop-collection firm has picked up since 1988. That’s 70 million and counting.
Pet Butler franchises start at $30,000 and its business -- with America’s 72 million dogs annually depositing between 14 pounds and 30 pounds of undigested kibble -- is a growth sector in the $70 billion U.S. pet industry.
“Toulouse has so far invested 70,000 euros and Agronutrition has put up 180,000 euros,” Cabanes says of the project that will require a total of 400,000 euros to complete and market. “I’ve absolutely no doubt that our product will have an instantaneous global customer base. You can’t help but smell the possibilities.”
Cabanes says the American solution, a $10.99 can of Poop Freeze Aerosol Freeze, is not ecologically sound, even when employed in conjunction with either Doody Danglers, Snugg-Ease doggie diapers or the Cinch-Lock Tail Anchoring System.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, back in 1991, categorized dog crap a “nonpoint source of pollution,” lumping it in the same group as toxic waste and chemicals.
Research conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta show that one gram of the stuff can contain 23 million fecal coli from bacteria, along with camplobacter, leptospira and a boxcar load of zoonotic diseases easily transmitted to humans.
The French haven’t fared any better in burying the problem. According to a series of government reports over the past decade, Paris has 200,000 dogs dropping 15 tons of stools a day that cost the city 9 million euros a year to mop up.
The city on the Seine has tried motorcycles with vacuum cleaners, “Pince-a-Crotte” poop tongs, “Inspecteurs de Salubrite,’ or caca cops, and 9,100-euro fines for repeat offenders. While fines in New York, London and other major cities have kept the dogs at bay, the poop crisis continues unabated in Paris.
“Bacteria, chemicals and pharmaceuticals reside in the feces of all organisms,” Cabanes says. “The key to making dog excrement a product is sterilizing those toxins and turning what’s left into energy. Once we’ve done it with dogs, we can do it with humans.”
Ferhout says the initial tests getting 34 female beagles to poop as directed were 100 percent successful and that field experiments at seven sites throughout Toulouse are scheduled to begin this fall.
“The attractor is a mélange of dog feces, urine and sex pheromones,” Ferhout says of the product that comes in easy-to- scatter pellets or in a colorless aerosol spray. “I can’t right now say that it will work with 100 percent certainty,” Cabanes says. “But if it does, Toulouse will become the center of a miracle industry.”
Ferhout riffles through a pile of research charts marked “canine olfactory studies.” He says the data is the key to successfully attracting dogs and investment capital.
“Then we collect the waste, detoxify it with endomycorrhiza and we have organic fertilizer,” he said.
“Beagles have middle-spectrum olfactory sensitivity capacity,” he says. “Dogs like Dobermans and German Shepherds have the best and poodles have the worst. Getting all of them to one spot is a question of blend. The science here is good.”
As for the secret ingredient, Ferhout will only reveal it’s a specific meat protein irresistible to all Rovers.
Perched on a stoop overlooking a colossal silo that’s whipping up a batch of Axofol SR, a luxury organic fertilizer designed to enhance the fruity flavor of white-wine grapes, Cabanes says his 64 employees view Project Propec as a homeopathic solution to a growing global health and energy issue that others are too squeamish to tackle.
“Project Propec is all about sustainability” the 53-year- old agronomist says over the machine’s great groaning blades. “What we’re developing is a business based on dog sh*t. People will find it either offensive or funny -- until they step on it.”
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