Something Smells Good

by David Ellis

The flight from Manchester to Dubai takes approximately 8 hours - an uncomfortable haul, saved only by the luxury afforded by an Emirates flight - extra legroom (essential when you’re 6’), great food (and complimentary drinks) and your own personal TV with a selection of films and other programmes to while away the hours.

Anticipation turned to trepidation as I walked down the aisle to my seat. A mountain of a man occupied the seat next to mine (spilling over into my space too). His perfectly spherical head was split by a warm smile and he blushed slightly as our eyes met - he must have detected my disappointment - embarrassed by his size perhaps - I don’t know. His smile broadened as he greeted me like an old acquaintance, I’m certain he tried to shake my hand as I squeezed into the remaining fraction of my seat.

As he spoke, I smiled in return, not really listening to what he had to say, more concerned about how I was going to endure the next 8 hours. He wore a Harris Tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. And his teeth were gleaming white - perfect. He smelled of warm earth on a summer evening, not unpleasant, just out of place. His hands were like great hams, extremely expressive, anemone - like, as he continued with his introduction. His fingers not dissimilar to unripe bananas, tinged slightly green and yellow, not quite ready for eating - he was either a compulsive chain smoker or had been painting the outside of his house.

Farmer I thought, as I surveyed again his massive head, ruddy complexion and ox-like thighs. Initial observation complete, I zoned in to what he was actually saying. Chemical engineer as it transpired, although of farming stock, his parents it seemed owned a sizeable portion of Lancashire - cattle farmers, Friesians - milk was their business.

Captivated by his energy and passion, I was drawn into his world - I cared less about what movies I could watch and more about the fascinating details of this man’s life -journey. This single child left his parents’ home to study at Lancaster University to be an industrial chemist - an appetite nurtured through a childhood of pasteurisation and sterilisation down on the farm no doubt.

Graduating with a ‘Desmond’ his first job was with Tate and Lyle as a chemical engineer, tasked with the challenge of recovering glycerine from the bleaching processes in the refining of sugar. Cane sugar is of course naturally tanned and for some reason unbeknownst to me, most of the western world still prefers their sugar white. I didn’t realise that they actually use common bleach to scorch the sugar and create the crystalline grains that many of us are addicted to. Bleach of course is rather toxic and therefore the caustic brew needs to be filtered and refined to make it benign once more. Glycerine is used to precipitate the bleach from the sugary syrup which is skimmed off leaving the sweet solution below. After the water is boiled away, Tate and Lyle’s primary product is left behind. (Apologies to any chemists for any errors here - this is my take on a much more detailed and complex explanation that I was given).

Job done you would think - dispose of the toxic brew of bleach and glycerine - however my muse informed me otherwise. Because glycerine is so very expensive, Tate and Lyle were very interested in any processes that would help them recover the glycerine from the soup so that they could use it again and keep refining costs down (and increase profits!)

And of course my fellow traveller was destined to be the person to find the solution for Tate and Lyle. He discovered that a complex solution of nitrates and organic products (and other compounds I can’t remember the name of), once mixed into the glycerine/bleach mix, would separate the glycerine from the bleach, which in turn could be skimmed off and re -used. Clearly I wasn’t sitting next to a dullard here - although he asserted that he was only applying knowledge he had learned on his parents farm - he said that often the solution to problems were usually immediately around you, all you had to do was look for them.

Beguiled and intrigued I realised that I had only heard the first chapter of this man’s story - would he elaborate more on his homespun theory? What did he learn on his parent’s farm that helped him solve the problem at Tate and Lyle? I probed for further insight and was shocked by the revelation.


He said this very matter-of-factly. The answer was ‘shite’. In fact he said he’d built a business around it. ‘I’ve made millions out of shite’. This wasn’t Gerald Ratner I was talking to - here was a man who had literally made millions out of excrement and not dodgy jewellery.

He explained that shortly after his success at Tate and Lyle, he declined their very attractive offer to head up their chemical engineering function to return to his parents farm in Lancashire to set up his own business. He had realised that his cocktail of nitrates and organic compounds was a product that his parents had in abundance. Cow dung. They had slurry tanks full of the stuff. He reckoned that there was little difference chemically to the lab created concoction that he’d produced for Tate and Lyle and the brown syrupy sludge that he used to spread on his parents field in early spring and late autumn.

And he made a giant leap by asking himself - what if we could use cow dung as a precipitate for other kinds of toxic waste that businesses all over the globe produce every second of every day? What if he’d stumbled upon a product that he could sell globally to the chemical industry?

As it happened, he hadn’t.

Well not quite. Back on his parents farm he converted a small room at the side of the milking sheds into a little laboratory and he began to experiment using cow dung to treat different kinds of toxic waste that he had collected from the likes of ICI, Syngenta and other large and relatively local waste producers. Although he had some success, it wasn’t the startlingly effective solution that he’d created for Tate and Lyle.

Contemplating the problem on the throne (the place of all deep thought and other significant activities) he had something of an epiphany - how would human excrement work on his samples in place of cow dung?

The results were amazing - his excrement seemed perfectly matched with the ICI samples that he had sourced. Companies like ICI spend millions each year treating waste that they cannot flush down the sewers and here was a product that could treat up to 95% of such waste, leaving only a tiny a remaining residue for disposal.

Further investigation revealed startling results. Human waste from Cheshire had very different properties to human waste in Northumberland. Diet, water hardness and other factors meant that human waste could be matched with different toxic slurries.

It transpires that sewage treatment works will pay to have solid waste matter removed from their sites - and handsomely. Our hero, sensing the opportunity, ordered a dozen new slurry tanks for his parent’s farm and set about filling them with solid waste from sewage treatment plants around the country.

His next step was simply to match which solid matter worked best with selected toxic slurries. He brokered deals with many of the largest chemical producing organisations in the country. He also was able to act as a broker for slurry tank producers, selling their reservoirs to these large companies so that they could treat their waste on site. He then would sell the companies tanker loads of the faecal waste that worked best on their waste, waste that he had been paid to take away from sewage works.

The companies would then use the human waste to treat their toxic waste which would mean that they could then dispose of 95% of the treated waste down the sewers and then they would pay our friend to take away the solid remaining 5% which he would take back up to Preston, dry and then resell to local farmers for use on their fields as a low grade fertilizer.

So here was a person, who had taken a product that is traditionally viewed as a problem and had turned it into a solution. He had taken this one product and turned it into 5 different economic strands. 1 He was paid to take away solid human waste from sewage farms 2 He sold the human waste to different companies to treat their waste 3 The companies then paid him to take away the 5% solid waste after use 4 He sells the dried waste as fertilizer to local farmers 5 He gets brokerage fees from farming manufactures who produce slurry tanks.

He became a millionaire in less than two years. He had established plants around the world in Spain, India, America and here he was about to meet with Sheik Mohammed to not only sell him more hardware for one of his petrochemical plants, but also to ensure that the latest consignment of human waste, from Cardiff apparently, was being utilised effectively.

I didn’t get to watch any films on that flight to Dubai. I didn’t even notice that the blood supply to my legs had been long since been depleted due to my constricted position in the seat which my fellow traveller shared with me. When I fell over in the aisle as I tried to dismount the plane, I couldn’t help thinking that being on my knees was probably quite appropriate - I’d been in the presence of a great man - in every sense of the word.