When I first learned about the Park Spark Project, I didn’t realize it was an art project. I thought it was a very cool idea for a doggy park to have a biomethane digester to light a lamp for the park. I liked the look of the illustrated digester tank, its hand-turned crank, and the old-fashioned street lamp. I especially liked the way it inspired people to clean up after their pets, while, also generating free energy from the waste. After the project had ended, I discovered that the Park Spark Project was an art project created by Matthew Mazzotta, one of the rare breed of conceptual artists to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
I was fortunate to be able to have a long-distance chat with Matthew in South Korea where he is now working on another community-based project. He told me about how he conceived of the Park Spark Project and brought it to fruition. He had been interested in methane digesters for years and seen many large farm-scale installations, but his first real encounter with small scale passive methane digesters was in India, where they have been used in households for centuries. He was intrigued with the fact that organic waste can be so easily used on a local scale to generate free energy.
One day while walking with a friend and his dog in the dog park in Cambridge, Massachusetts he noticed the trash bins filled with dog waste and the idea of the Park Spark Project suddenly dawned on him. He rounded up support from MIT and began to work on the project.
Matthew over the next year built a number of prototype digesters with scientists and engineers from MIT and around the US. After that it took about 7 months from the day Matthew first presented it to the city of Cambridge that his demonstration project met all the approvals and was brought to completion.
At first, he said, he encountered some obstacles in getting the approvals needed for the project to go forward. The city authorities were interested in the project, but no one wanted to take responsibility or potential liability for authorizing it since the idea of a publically fed digester was such a new idea. At first, they were wary. “No one in Cambridge can say ‘yes’ to something like this right off the bat. People should be allowed to be weary of something new. I was when I first started researching digesters” he told me. He was eventually told that if he could get sign-offs from the US EPA, the public health department, and the fire department, the City of Cambridge would approve the project.
One by one, he approached those agencies. After talking to several US EPA representatives, he was eventually told that, since the project was small and short term, he would not need a federal discharge permit. The public health department also gave their approval. But although the city’s waste haulers routinely picked up the garbage bins filled with doggy doo, he was finally told the residual materials would have to be disposed of outside the city’s channels for waste management. He eventually found a company which handles zoo waste to pick up the residual waste materials for disposal.
After working with the fire department for months, Matthew was finally able to submit a design that gave the fire dept confidence that there was minimal potential for public harm from the digester or the gas lamp. However, they did require him to install a flame arrester. He told me that his digester is probably the first small-scale passive digester to have a such a expensive flame arrester.
Another problem Matthew had to overcome was finding biodegradable bags for the public to use for depositing dog waste into the methane digester. He told me that he searched for sources around the country, but the “biodegradable” plastic bags that he was finding that were produced in the US do not fully decompose. Instead, they merely break down into smaller plastic particles. Finally, he found an Italian company which manufactures fully biodegradable and compostable bags, He supplied those biodegradable bags from Italy in a dispenser for the public to use for depositing dog waste into the digester.
Finally, the day came when the lamp was lit. Matthew would come to the park in the evening and light the lamp, then extinguish it during the day.
People (and their pets!) absolutely loved it! The media picked up the story and carried it far and wide, throughout the US and around the world, via NPR, CNN headline News, BBC, the Associated Press and other major media sources. The Park Spark Project became the subject of news articles, radio interviews, mainstream TV like the Chelsea Lately show, and YouTube videos. Some links to those reports are included below.
As Matthew explained it to me, public interest and involvement were a key component of his project design. Although the benefits of biomethane are relatively self-evident, it doesn’t really change things to have this potential source of energy available if people don’t know about it and embrace it. That is where conceptual art comes into the picture. Conceptual art is designed to provoke issues and can include community involvement in experiencing the project as an element of the design.
I felt a twinge of loss that I imagine the doggy park visitors shared when I learned the Park Spark Project would end this autumn. Later I learned that, too, was part of the project design, in acknowledgement of a rather unfortunate part of the human condition: Sometimes we have to lose something before we fully realize what we had.
But Matthew is planning to expand his project next year. He is beginning to solicit bids to bring the Park Spark Project to six other communities. He envisions installations of Park Spark Projects around the world to foster community involvement in realizing local solutions to energy and environmental needs.
The Park Spark Project is almost magical in its transformation of a public nuisance into useful energy, and the public enthusiasm it has generated. In all of the research I’ve done on biomethane throughout many years, I have not encountered another project that so effectively engaged the public’s attention and media publicity in such a positive way. Maybe the success of the Park Spark Project is due, in part, to the fact that we Americans (well, most of us, anyway) love our pets. But we hate have to handle their waste! And I think most of us are concerned about where we will get our energy from in the years to come.
The beauty of the Park Spark Project is that it addressed these interests and resolved those concerns simultaneously, in a publicly engaging and environmentally friendly way. It is truly a masterful achievement, bridging the gap between art and science, and productively engaging the public.
Park Spark is a lamp light in the darkness.