Next time you shop for lingerie, take a closer look. That nightgown might once have been a telephone pole. Microterra Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla., is recycling old utility poles and railroad ties into chemical-free wood chips to sell to producers of rayon and other materials.
The wood is shredded, then inoculated with lab-grown microbes. In a process known as bioremediation, the bugs eat hazardous wood preservatives such as creosote. Once the contaminants have been devoured, the wood can be reprocessed into cellulose-based products, such as rayon or cardboard. Microterra, which licensed its process from Louisiana State University, is building a plant at Tallulah, La., designed to recycle up to 50,000 poles or 300,000 ties per month.
Microterra plans to charge $80 per pole and $10 per railroad tie, compared with the average $1 it costs to bury each of these in landfills. Despite the high premium, Microterra President Richard C. Fox expects sufficient supplies. Burning the chemically soaked poles and ties is now illegal in some states. And under Environmental Protection Agency regulations, companies can be held liable if contaminants leak into the soil.