Biosolids and Tools for Climate Change Mitigation

Biosolids: Tamiflu for the Climate

I stumbled seriously last week. If it wasn’t the influenza virus, then my fever, malaise and cough arose from a virus very nearly like it.  I tried to pretend that it wasn’t the flu. After all, October’s dutiful vaccination should have kept me safe from such infection, although epidemiologists  say otherwise (according to the 2/15 MMWR Weekly from the CDC, “vaccine effectiveness for all ages was 46% (30%–58%).” But also to blame for my malaise is The Uninhabitable Earth, a newly released book David Wallace-Wells, which I had pre-ordered and which Amazon promptly delivered to my sick bed. As if glued to the TV by the carnage of a train wreck, I pored over the book’s dark message of the looming catastrophe that is global climate change, very much adding to my flu-induced insomnia. According to the author, the looming global disaster that will inevitably unfold in coming decades is far worse than most of us can imagine. Our society and economy are facing forces of extreme change, for which no historical precedent has prepared us.

This would have been hard enough to read had I not been feeling ill. I have to say that I am glad I hadn’t first read “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Vice is reporting that this is “The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It's Sending People to Therapy.”  

In my fevered delirium I had this stream of thought: “Man! DC Water will be sorry it spent a half billion when it will so soon be underwater! it’s all doomed!” This is, after all, what a feverish delirium sounds like.

Yet, could this actually be our new reality?  Climate change may be happening faster than we had been led to believe. The World Meteorological Organization confirms the rising incidence of extreme weather is due to global warming, and this change begins to feel normal. The rate that oceans are warming globally is increasing, and this causes deoxygenation of ocean waters,which, when added to the “strip mining” by industrial trawlers,  is dealing a blow to ocean fisheries.  On land, the weather is making global food production more vulnerablepeople are dying of excess temperatures., and cities are experiencing dry-weather flooding.  Modern agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as we read in Food in the Anthropocene, and what is more it is may responsible for the “insect apocalypse,” through the use of herbicides and insecticides. Since the urgent actions called for by  “IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C” have been largely ignored, we are on a the trajectory to a 4.0C seems in the cards, which will be a driver to coastal sea levels that may inundate the major cities of the world, including, DC, Philadelphia and New York, to name those close to home.   From this vantage point, the world predicted by The Uninhabitable Earth and by Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation seems the reasonable starting point for planning our future infrastructure, including wastewater and biosolids infrastructure.  

What might “climate change-minded” biosolids infrastructure look like? Despite all the gloom above, I have been feeling positive about our wastewater and biosolids stewardship from the viewpoint of global sustainability. I have shared in previous TOPICs (“Closing the circle”) how biosolids is front and center of the “Circular Economy.” I was uplifted, too, by The Role of Agroecology in Sustainable Intensification, a U.K. document that connects “ecosystem services” with “global food systems.” Agroecology is “simultaneously raising yields, increasing the efficiency with which inputs are being used and reducing the negative environmental effects of food production.” I think there is plenty of space here for biosolids.

I have some good evidence of the role of biosolid in contributing to climate change mitigation.   I can point to the amazing paper "Recirculation of human-derived nutrients from cities to agriculture across six continents” that opens with “Recovering human-derived nutrients can advance circular economies by linking increasingly urban global populations with local cropland, offsetting unsustainable fertilizer use and improving access in low-income countries.”   The recent paper, Feeding the Corn Belt: Opportunities for phosphorus recycling in U.S. agriculture, concludes “We find that domestic recyclable P sources, predominantly from animal manures, could meet national corn production P demands with no additional fertilizer inputs.” Of course, I read biosolids into this.

There is more evidence that biosolids has a “rightful place” in mitigating climate change. The paper “Transition towards circular economy in the food system” indicates managing nutrients flows and wastes as two key elements; you can’t have those without biosolids.  Best of all, the National Academies recognize this role: “Environmental engineering for the 21st century: Addressing grand challenges

Biosolids also occupies key pathways to mitigating greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions. One includes carbon capture in the soil.  The recent 2/25/19 edition of Chemical & Engineering News featured on its cover the article Capturing carbon: Can it save us?, with the tagline:  “We have technologies to remove greenhouse gases from air, but it’s less clear we can scale them fast enough to make a difference.” Its rhetorical answer was a qualified “no.” The author looked at five technologies: extracting from air, burning new (bio) fuels, burying underground, making rocks, and growing plants. I have been all over the biofuels opportunity in my TOPICs “Biosolids Extreme Biofuels.”  Dr. Sally Brown, the science author of our monthly Biosolids Research Updates, has been all over the topic of greenhouse gas mitigation: Calculator Tool for Determining Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Biosolids Processing and End Use and Biosolids and Global Warming: Evaluation the Management Impacts. Biosolids hits two out of the 5 technologies in the C&E News.

It is in the support of soil health and community agriculture that biosolids has its strong play for easing climate catastrophe.  DC Water’s focus on applying biosolids to urban soils is evidence of a role of biosolids for “deep adaptation.” “Marketing Bloom®, a Class A Exceptional Quality Biosolids-Based Soil Amendment, in the Greater Washington, D.C. Area” lays out the game plan of selling biosolids products for urban soil projects. While some of us may have been reluctant to advocate biosolids products for growing vegetables, some researchers have had no problem with that. Most notable is Kentucky’s George Antonious (e.g., Impact of Soil Amendments on Antioxidants and Trace-Elements Content of Bell Pepper and Melon Fruits at Harvest). The late Dr. Frank Gouin, an early promoter of biosolids compost,  spent the last year of his retired life exclaiming the benefits of biosolids products like Bloom. Recent research confirms the benefits of biosolids to restoring degraded soils ( Using Organic Amendments to Restore Degraded Mineland Soils) and contaminated soils (Organic Compost to Improve Contaminated Soil Quality and Plant Fertility), confirming the wisdom of an earlier generation of researchers (thank you, retired ARS researcher Rufus Chaney!)

A recent student blog in the American Philosophical Association, “In the Face of Climate Collapse, Resist Hope,” argued that hope and optimism was a barrier to effective response to the challenges.  Oh, No!  You may have noticed the change in phraseology, away from climate “change” and toward climate “catastrophe” or “collapse.” It is easy, in the throes of fever, to respond to the enervating news of climate change and feel hopeless.   But we in the biosolids profession have a tool with which to retain our optimism and to accomplish carbon sequestration, agriculture intensification, and biofuel production. We have Biosolids: Tamiflu for the Climate.