Biosolids Product Performance

Satisfaction Guaranteed!

On the last two days of November, I took my wife’s two Priuses to the local showroom/service garage for their annual inspection (yeah, I know, plan ahead next year). At the close of the first appointment, the service manager reminded me that, if I received a Toyota Corporation survey of service satisfaction, any rating less than a 10 out of 10 was a cause for a mark against his service department from headquarters in Tokyo. Good to know, as I usually never give 10 out of 10, since it seems God-like, superhuman. Al’s a nice guy; he's been servicing me for years, and I don’t want a mark against him, even if the $250 for new rotors on the back brakes seemed high.

I bought a roll of stamps at the Postal Service counter, and the cashier circled the QR code whereby I could rate my “postal experience;” the receipt declaring YOUR OPINION COUNTS and TELL US ABOUT YOUR RECENT POSTAL EXPERIENCE.  How can I define the experience of a roll of stamps? This is a metaphysical conversation I had not patience for in the moment.

Then I bought three bags of Dunkin' Donuts ground coffee for the price of two, and the cashier directed my attention to the QR code, where I could go on my iPhone and rate the cashier on her performance.  It was quite a bargain, I agree, but was my positive experience attributable to the cashier? I could not be sure, so decided to toss the receipt, with its 18-digit code.

The checker at Acme super market pressed me with guilt: “If three customers on my shift fill out this questionnaire, I get a $25 gift card.” I filled out the questionnaire. It took longer than the time needed to pick up milk, bread and bananas, but she really looked like she could use that card, and it is the Christmas season, after all.

When I stopped at Rite Aid for the 3 ounce Dixie Cup refills, I received a report on my “Available Plenti Points” and on my “wellness+ Status Points” and was urged to ENTER FOR A CHANCE TO WIN $1000 for telling them about my service. I didn’t fill it out. The cashier was cute, but indifferent, in a forgivably teenager way. She wouldn’t care if I skipped the survey, and the $1000 was a long shot, I figured.

ENOUGH! ENOUGH! ENOUGH! I am confronting way too many ethical decisions for so few errands.

While every commercial transaction today seems to end with an opportunity to give feedback, I wonder about our biosolids profession. Do we ask our biosolids users how satisfied they are? If they told us, would we have the capability to do anything about it?

I had my own personal taste of wanting to resist asking for feedback.  The MABA board had to remind me at its last meeting that I had agreed to have attendees of our mid-November symposium “rate their experience.” I had developed my own questionnaire with Survey Money. but then discovered that SM has its own entire service around this topic of “customer satisfaction.”  Perhaps I should have used it. Out of 57 registrants, I got only 11 responses (BTW, I got about a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5).

I think most of us biosolids practitioners hate selling and don't want to listen to people who don't know our troubles.

Ron Alexander, organics marketing guru, delivered his talk at the MABA Symposium “The Past, Present & Future of Organic Residuals Marketing in the Eastern US.” For me the most salient point was an assertion that we had gone backwards on the commitment to sell the benefits of biosolids recycling.  For Alexander, a key part of the sales cycle is training staff to be engaged in market place trends and build political support. That means constantly listening to the customers, their expectation and responses to our products. Ugh!

Why would we ask customers how we could do better, if we have no control over what our equipment produces for us?

Lisa Boudeman addressed the peculiarities of different products produced by different dryers: “Not All Dryer Products are Created Equal.” She passed around samples of dried product, and these proved very interesting for their variety of textures and different fragrances. I had not previously understood that bridging of a powdery dried biosolids made from raw sludges had interfered with its use as a pneumatically-fed biofuel. I had also not been fully aware of the need to chop us the dried noodles created by belt dryers to prepare the biosolids for feed through spreader equipment. I had heard of the complaints arising from billows of brown dust following spreaders ejecting to farm fields a weakly-structured product. Customers don’t want brown plumes, bridging or unchopped noodles. It seems as though product performance is an afterthought.

Watching out for consumer product performance is Consumer Reports. Its website proudly announces it has tested 7,000 products in its research lab.  Where is the parallel for biosolids products, when our profession seems to be entirely content with national regulations, frozen in time since their promulgation 23 years ago?

Malcolm Taylor at Penn State is looking for new ways of objectively measuring the “stability” of biosolids, going beyond the Vector Attraction Reduction standards of Part 503. Specifically, just how stinky can a Class A EQ product become after sitting around. He is using a new text measure brought over from the UK, called OxiTop. His presentation, “Exploring new approaches to measuring biosolids stability,” showed that even a well-digested biosolids holds significant potential for post-dewatering respiration, and odorant generation. The message is that we need to be thinking of post-dewatering treatment of a product before distribution to the public.

What is more important for biosolids performance than growing plants?

DC Water had to spend its half-billion dollars before it could set out to show the new product of its advanced digestion system, its Bloom, could grow plants.  From the comfort of her PhD lab desk at Virginia Tech, by Odiney Alvarez presented to the MABA symposium the results, now a year into Bloom's production, of pot studies showing Bloom's performance in various soil blends: “Nutrient Availability and Quality Assessment of Exceptional Quality Biosolids Products.” It should not be a surprise that, planted directly in a Class A EQ biosolids cake, seedlings did not thrive. The value in the biosolids is in its blend with other ingredients. Part of the reason is likely attributable to aeration, but salt concentrations were identified by Alvarez as a significant factor. Again, as with odor issues, post-dewatering handling of the biosolids product is a key part of “Customer Satisfaction,” but seldom does "satisfaction" drive treatment processes.

How often do we biosolids practitioners put ourselves in the middle of a crowd of potential customers for the purpose of selling our product?

This past week, Brooklyn College hosted and NYC Urban Soils Institute organized the First Annual Urban Soils Symposium, “SOILS OF OUR CITY: Features & Applications.” If ever I attended an "environmental" event that had the feel of a Holiday bazaar, bubbling with enthusiasm, registrants on waiting lists, standing room only, this was it!  Green infrastructure, soil lead remediation, clean fill re-purposing, soil microbial health, urban soil mapping, submerged soil classification – these were some of the interesting topics. I wasthere to pitch BIOSOLIDS.

I had 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions, to argue that biosolids was a "yuge" solution to the city’s soil problems. It worked!  Everyone I talked to LOVES BIOSOLIDS! Wow! For many attendees, biosolids was a new thought.  But several "in the know" types thought NYCDEP was still recycling biosolids in Colorado; another recalled it baking in the South Bronx; someone else raved about the biosolids compost made in NJ; everyone seemed to relate to the Newtown Creek digesters.

I told the rather deflating truth about NYC's current biosolids situation, but painted a colorful picture of better days yet to come. I told of the potential in NYC for capturing the beauty of biosolids for use in gardens and parks around the city, for achieving deep recycling goals for 2050, for supporting local horticultural enterprises, and for fulfilling dreams of many kinds. There are dreams, mostly in the hearts of young people who love soil and plants and water. These dreamers had no problem of seeing how biosolids closes the loop in a wonderful way.

The metaphysics of biosolids is in connecting with people and their heartfelt passions. In that way, biosolids satisfaction is guaranteed!