Microplastics in the Environment

Just One Word: Biosolids

“Just one word: plastic…. There is a great future in plastics” is the famous line from the 1967 film The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman stars in the role of Ben, an aimless college graduate, who is taken aside by the man whom he will soon cuckold and receives this famous, fatherly advice.  We may have all forgetten just how true that observation was in 1967; plastics were at that time an innovation. Today we have the contradiction: the future is NOT great in plastics.

Problems with plastics were “top of mind” this month, now some 50+ years after The Graduate. The news article  Whale Is Found Dead in Italy With 48 Pounds of Plastic in Its Stomach: described how “[m]ore than 48 pounds of plastic, including disposable dishes, a corrugated tube, shopping bags and a detergent package with its bar code still visible, were found inside a dead sperm whale in Italy, the World Wildlife Fund said on Monday.” In going through this news story, I learned that the WWF has issued the report Out of the Plastic Trap: Saving the Mediterranean from Plastic Pollution which, while lamenting macro-plastic pollution as a danger to mega-fauna, asserted the bigger concern “is the microplastics, smaller and more insidious fragments that reach record levels in the Mediterranean Sea: the concentration of microplastics is almost four times higher than in the “plastic island” found in the North Pacific Ocean.”  The WWF claims that microplastics, “by entering the food chain, these fragments threaten an increasing number of animal species as well as human health.”

We in the biosolids profession are now “woke” to microplastics.  One review article (Transport and fate of microplastics in wastewater treatment plants: implications to environmental health) provides such eye-popping phrases as: “WWTPs constitute an essential route for MPs [microplastics] entering surface water systems…. MPs were found in high concentrations ranging from 260 to 320 particles L-1 in raw wastewater… During the treatment process, around 95% of Microplastics is retained in biosolids.” An opinion piece rhetorically asked “Are Agricultural Soils Dumps for Microplastics of Urban Origin?” and then answered with “Based on new MP emission estimates in industrialized countries, we suggest that widespread application of sewage sludge from municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to farmlands is likely to represent a major input of MPs to agricultural soils, with unknown consequences for sustainability and food security.”  

So, what gives with this flurry of attention and concern? Is biosolids are major "input" of microplastics to soil? Should we in the biosolids profession be alarmed?

Science journalists have justifiably caused this flurry or attention  Popular media has increasingly reported on accumulating piles of plastic waste on land and water, and the media point to the sad fact humanity has no effective response.  For me, the scope of the challenge was compellingly laid out last year in Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. From this report we learn that plastic production was negligible at the time of The Graduate, and since then over 8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, and the rate of plastic production has continued to increase. Between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion metric tons were produced, of which 6.3 billion still exists as waste: on the land surface, in landfills, along roadsides and coastlines, and in oceans. In 2019, over 0.4 more billion metric tons will be produced, and at the same time 0.3 billion tons will be discarded, and an estimated 12 million tons will end up in the oceans, some of it as “macro” plastics, but most if it as microplastics.

This plastics accumulation has been going on for over six decades, but only in the last decade or so have scientists asked how plastics, particularly microplastics, is affecting the environment and human health. I checked out Google Scholar and determined that in 65 years of research between 1950 and 2015, 3,960 research papers were published on microplastics, but in just the last two years the number of published science articles on microplastics is 6,310. The amount of discarded plastic in our environment increased by 10 percent since 2015, but the number of research papers has increased 160%. Small surprise, then, that for environmentalists and biosolids managers the plastic waste issue has moved forward in the priority of issues, even as the overwhelming issue of climate change claws its way to center stage.

The immediate question for us biosolids managers is how much of a threat may plastics generally, and microplastics specifically, pose for the future of biosolids land application?

Thankfully, Dr. Sally Brown, the consummate biosolids researcher at the University of Washington and author of MABA’s monthly Research Updates, has been vigilant on the microplastic topic for several years. Sally has issued three “blurbs” on the topic. Her assessment overall is that no alarm bells need to be ringing in terms of evidence of plant and soil harm, but we need to be paying attention to this as an area of concern, because the science is young.

In her May 2015 blurb, Dr. Brown explains that: “It turns out that microplastics, typically in the form of small beads, are now found in many types of cosmetics [Review of microplastics in cosmetics], [and] studies have found them in aquatic environments.  One of the prime sources of these materials is wastewater [again, the article Transport and fate of microplastics in wastewater treatment plants: implications to environmental health]….  They potentially have a negative impact, although it is still not clear.” She also points out that microplastics added to soil is not new, and in fact one of the first articles to connect microplastics, biosolids and soil is the 2005 article Synthetic fibers as an indicator of land application of sludge.

Dr. Brown turns to microfibers in her July 2017 blurb. Although federal legislation is causing microbeads to be withdrawn from personal care products, Dr. Brown says “we will still be dealing with plastic fibers from clothes and carpets [Polyester textiles as a source of microplastics from households: A mechanistic study to understand microfiber release during washing].”  As with beads, the potential harm of microfibers is not known.  She reviews journal articles that explores two pathways; [First,]“microplastic can be eaten and can harm the critters that eat them by physically disrupting the digestive process. Second, as organics, plastics can potentially sorb other organics in soils and become hiding areas for toxic organics.  Worms and other creatures that eat soil are likely the most sensitive individuals.” Yet, for neither pathway was the research definitive about negative effects of microplastics.

Dr. Brown points out in her October 2018 blurb that scientists, with the hope of attracting research funds, have begun ‘amping up’ the urgency of microplastic pollution ahead of convincing research results.  The two-page opinion essay, Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?, mentioned above, is Dr, Brown's example of how “In many cases, when a new contaminant is identified, scientist test the worst case, meaning high (unrealistic) concentrations of contaminant are tested, not in a matrix (added straight not with biosolids).” Dr. Brown examined the authors’ estimates of microplastic loadings to agricultural soils and concluded that their estimate “sounds off by an order of magnitude or three to me.” That is no small amount of exaggeration.

Science is still in the very early, hypothesis-building stages of exploring the environmental risks of biosolids-borne microplastics. Examples of such “thought pieces"are: Microplastic in Terrestrial Ecosystems and the Soil? and Microplastics in the Terrestrial Ecosystem: Implications for Lumbricus terrestris (Oligochaeta, Lumbricidae).

For the biosolids profession, we need to place the risks of biosolids-borne plastics into the larger context of sources and sinks.  The incidence of plastics, both macro and micro, are emblematic of today’s world, as they are in our air, water and lands.  One paper asserts The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene. Aquatic life is most vulnerable to plastics, and sources are diverse, including rainfall, ocean vessel releases, and fishing (Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources).  Indeed, plastics are in the air we breathe, coming from fabrics and carpets, and still the effects on human health are not known, as explained in Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in? Smaller, nano-size particles may be worse (Micro(nano)plastics: A threat to human health? ). Plastic-containing dust in urban areas, abraded from tires and brake pads, create urban air exposures (Various forms and deposition fluxes of microplastics identified in the coastal urban atmosphere). This dust can be then washed through storm sewers into surface waters, where it can mix with floodplain soils in environmentally sensitive riparian corridors (Microplastics in Swiss Floodplain Soils).  Last year we saw reports of microplastics in bottled drinking water, apparently coming from the cap (WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water). Microplastics are indeed ubiquitous.

Biosolids is not even the major source of plastics to farm soils, as we learn in An overview of microplastic and nanoplastic pollution in agroecosystems.  Agriculture itself directly introduces plastic to the terrestrial environment.   One big source is plastic film mulch, with over 7 million tons used annually across the globe, and China is the largest user of this kind of mulch (Policy considerations for limiting unintended residual plastic in agricultural soils). Such mulch is typically plowed into the soil after a single use, as costs for its removal and disposal are high, and, as with other fates of plastic in the environment,the effects of this practice on soil health are not known. Scientists are asking Plastic mulching in agriculture. Trading short-term agronomic benefits for long-term soil degradation?  A stab at an answer is included in some preliminary reports, such as Microplastic effects on plants and Impacts of microplastics on the soil biophysical environment.  Interestingly, microplastics also impact organic farmers, as their sources of organic matter and nutrients may be contaminated (Organic fertilizer as a vehicle for the entry of microplastic into the environment).

When biodegradable plastic film mulch became available a decade ago, it was held out as a solution to soil contamination, and its quick adoption was foreseen. But then scientists raised concern for the qualities of such film, the veracity of the claims, and its actual fate in real soil conditions. Some of this research is going on at Washington State University, in fact by friends of Dr Brown’s (Is Biodegradable Plastic Mulch the Solution to Agriculture’s Plastic Problem?). So, sadly, we can't even count on plastics built on bio-based polymers. 

Yet, for all these sources and sinks, our job as biosolids professionals is to study the sources and fate of plastics in biosolids. This is a big job, even for this narrow part of the issue, as analytical procedures are very challenging. Scientists are beginning to report results of studying wastewater influent (Inflow possibility of microplastics to sewage treatment facilities through sewerage) and effluent (Wastewater treatment plant effluent as a source of microplastics: review of the fate, chemical interactions and potential risks to aquatic organisms).  Advanced treatment systems are being studied for their capacity to achieve superior plastic removal from effluent (Solutions to microplastic pollution – Removal of microplastics from wastewater effluent with advanced wastewater treatment technologies). The partitioning of microplastics to biosolids during conventional treatment  is a principal means of their removal from effluent (Mapping microplastics in sludge) and may account for up to 95% removal from effluent. Solids handling systems seem to have a surprising (at least to me) effect on microplastics concentrations, even beyond the concentrating effect of volatile solids destruction during digestion, or dilution during lime stabilization (Microplastics in Sewage Sludge: Effects of Treatment).  And once applied to soil, biosolids-borne microplastics are subject to several pathways: they may move through or across soil; they may be ingested by soil micro and macrofauna; and they may (though this is, in my mind, a remote possibility) be taken up by plant roots (Microplastics as an emerging threat to terrestrial ecosystems).  This is all subject to future scientific research, which the biosolids profession ought to support financially.

As with some of our other recent toxicity challenges (e.g., flame retardants, non-stick coatings and prescription drugs), public sewerage and treatment plants are not sources of plastics in themselves, but rather are a conduit for microplastics. At the end of the day, much of the responsibility for decreasing loading in the biosolids will have to come from changing production and distribution patterns for consumer goods. The 2015 ban on microbeads may yet result in lower biosolids microplastics, and perhaps we can turn consumers back to natural fabrics to reduce plastic microfibers in our influent. And we may have other positive surprises, as in this recent story about biodegradable fabrics (Hello, Little Microbe. Doesn’t This Jacket Look Yummy?).

We biosolids professionals nevertheless have a role to play in understanding how our treatment systems can be managed to reduce loadings in biosolids and in ensuring that our practices of land application do no harm and are shown to have countervailing soil health benefits. I still believe there is a great future in biosolids.

Climate Change-Minded Biosolids Infrastructure

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. 

Biosolids in the world of Fake Science

A Rockin’ New Year for Biosolids

“I won’t watch this!”

I am sitting with my son-in-law Mike on a leather sofa, and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2019 with Ryan Seacrist and Jennifer McCarthy is re-playing on the flat screen, three hours later in Lacey, Washington than when live on Times Square.  My daughter Laurel had joined her twin 7-year-olds in bed.

What was that about?!

“Jennifer McCarthy has set medical science back 40 years!” Who's McCarthy, I wonder to myself?

Wikipedia leads off its article with McCarthy is an American anti-vaccine activist, actress, model, television host, author, and screenwriter. She began her career in 1993 as a nude model for Playboy magazine and …. has become an activist promoting research into environmental causes and alternative medical treatments for autism.” Yup, all the credentials you to be an opinion-leader today in environment and health policy.

Like Laurel, Mike is a family practice physician in the state of Washington, one of 17 U.S. states that permits parents to refuse vaccinations of their children for non-religious reasons, and consequently it is third lowest in MMR rates of inoculation. An outbreak of 16 measles infections occurred in Clark County, Washington, in 2018.

Anti-vaxxers are an avoidable and urgent risk to our nation’s health. A 2019 Forbes article “Measles Outbreaks Show Why Anti Vaxxers Made WHO's 10 Global Health Threats” places “vaccine hesitancy” number 7 on its list of health risks.  Mentioning the Washington outbreak, the Forbes public health writer Bruce Lee says, “What were the parents of the 16 people thinking?”

How can it be that educated, attentive parents make such poor decisions based on “fake science”? Many notable scientists and medical researchers have been studying this issue. Harvard surgeon and author, Dr. Atul Gawande, in his 2016 New Yorker essay, THE MISTRUST OF SCIENCE, wrote: “scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted…. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).”

We in the biosolids industry confront “mistrust of science.” We can point to literally thousands of peer-reviewed science journal articles, and yet our “sound science” is disbelieved.  For sure we have our quack-worthy, conspiracy-theorizing “investigative journalists” like John Stauber of Toxic Sludge is Good For You and Mike Adams of Biosludged. We also have our “highly educated,” self-declared expert opponents -- the ‘Jennifer McCarthys’ of biosolids – e.g., Caroline Snyder and Lidia Epp. But importantly, some of our  industry’s most compelling opponents have been university and government scientists:   Murray McBrideDavid LewisHugh KaufmanRolf Halden and Robert Hale, to name a few prominent and/or memorable ones. The sound science of literally thousands of researchers is undermined by a handful of others.

Might the researchers and scientist working to confront the anti-vaccine activists have something to teach those of us who confront these and other anti-biosolids activists?

Opponents to biosolids share a key belief to vaccine opponents – they are opposing a mythological conspiracy. The article, 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior, discusses the attribute psychomythology: “One reason we’re so easily seduced by psychomythology is that it jibes with our common sense: our gut hunches, intuitions, and first impressions.” When it comes to biosolids, it is easy to associate bathroom activity with a “gut hunch” that biosolids is bad. After all, un-caring public officials, un-engaged regulators and profit-driven businesses cannot be trusted with the public welfare – a conspiracy!

Who believes fake news and fake science, whether about vaccines or biosolids?  According to the paper Belief in Fake News is Associated with Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Reduced Analytic Thinking: “Exploratory analyses showed that dogmatic individuals and religious fundamentalists were also more likely to believe false (but not true) news, and that these relationships may be fully explained by analytic cognitive style. Our findings suggest that existing interventions that increase analytic and actively open-minded thinking might be leveraged to help reduce belief in fake news.” 

Those of us who are science minded may need to be reminded of how vulnerable “non-specialists” are to fake science, even those not conspiracy-minded.  According to Science, Skepticism, and Applied Behavior Analysis: “Pseudoscientific claims often eschew objective experimental evidence in favor of anecdotes or testimonials…. Scientific studies refuting pseudoscientific claims often are criticized and dismissed on grounds of poor methodological rigor or problematic design…. It also is common for proponents of a pseudoscientific claim to criticize individual studies or pieces of evidence in minute detail, while the confluence of multiple sources of evidence refuting the claim is ignored.”  Those of us who regularly track anti-biosolids claims will find these points familiar to us.

One influential young researcher of fake science is professor Brendan Nyhan, formerly of Dartmouth, and now University of Michigan. He wrote a seminal review article The challenge of false beliefs: Understanding and countering misperceptions in politics and health care. Here are a few nuggets from his article, which primarily addressed Anti-Vaxxer activity:

Motivated reasoning [reasoning that consistent with our predispositions] seems to be an especially important factor in the prevalence and persistence of misperceptions about controversial issues.
… individuals [are] more likely to choose to read false claims that are consistent with their partisan or ideological preferences or avoiding corrective information about those claims.
…anxiety can make people more likely to accept false claims
…humans are heavily influenced by their peers and social contacts….
… people with strong directional preferences may come to believe even more strongly in the belief or attitude in question when challenged
…[G}reater public knowledge or higher levels of education may not necessarily promote more accurate or open-minded views.
…misperceptions [that] are genuine and sincerely held … differ from ignorance in the sense that people often hold them with a high degree of certainty and consider themselves to be well-informed about the issues in question.
…the content of media coverage is not just balanced but actively misleading
…“balanced” news reports that do not adequately represent the evidence in a policy or scientific debate are common and can contribute to misperceptions’

Dr. Nyhan’s findings underscore the compelling nature of anti-vaccine messages, and we can see by analogy why anti-biosolids activists’ messages persist so strongly and why the media coverage is often hostile.

Perhaps all is not gloomy, in that objective-minded people are out there and we can work with them and persuade them. In the article Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning the authors conclude “…that analytic thinking is used to assess the plausibility of headlines, regardless of whether the stories are consistent or inconsistent with one’s political ideology. Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se – a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news.”

How can we fight against this fake science or overcome the “laziness?“ The Anti Vaxxer situation is so urgent, and so bleak, that The New York Times Editorial Board took up this very question this week (1/19/2019) in  How to Inoculate Against Anti-Vaxxers: The no-vaccine crowd has persuaded a lot of people. But public health can prevail. The editorial explains that “hundreds of websites [are] promoting their message, a roster of tech- and media-savvy influencers and an aggressive political arm that includes at least a dozen political action committees. Defense against this onslaught has been meager. The C.D.C., the nation’s leading public health agency, has a website with accurate information, but no loud public voice. The United States Surgeon General’s office has been mum. So has the White House — and not just under the current administration. That leaves just a handful of academics who get bombarded with vitriol, including outright threats, every time they try to counter pseudoscience with fact.” This situation, too, has a familiar ring for biosolids; for all of the hostile websites and social media, the number of biosolids advocacy sites seems meager. 

For countering the Anti-Vaxxers, the NYT Editorial Board’s advised these strategies:

Get tough -- enforce the regulations and policies;
Be savvy -- respond fast to rumors, and fight celebrity with celebrity;
Be clear -- the benefits need to be a constant refrain;
Know the enemy -- the negative messages are predictable and must be answered repeatedly and directly;
Know the audience -- many of those with concerns can become supporters, relatively few are opponents forever;
Enlist the right support – use normal people with positive messages.

Dr. Nyhan also summarized, again in his review article, those measures that research seems to indicate are effective in countering fake science. These include:

…corrective information may be more persuasive to skeptical groups when it originates with ideologically sympathetic sources …  or is presented in graphical rather than textual form
…providing an alternate causal account for events has been found to be more effective than simply refuting an unsupported claim
...promoting greater elite consensus … might reduce belief polarization more effectively than messages directed to the public.
…it is important to counter science politicization before it becomes entrenched.  

Thanks to Jennifer McCarthy, I see we can learn from the scholarship and experience of the communities opposing the Anti Vaxxers, and I see a clear path ahead for biosolids advocacy. We can’t shirk in our response to the negative articles, but in our response we need biosolids customers and scientists by our side, to help us tell the benefits of biosolids to soils and plants. If we can do that, we will have Rockin' New Year for Biosolids.  

Biosolids Solves the Climate Crisis

Biosolids Solves the Climate Crisis

Recent weeks have been a whiplash. Against the shocking images of Hurricane Michael’s damage to Mexico Beach is the release of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change giving humanity barely more than a decade to mend its fossil-fuel dependent ways. Media commentary adds to the whiplash, when a prestigious, proudly conservative, journal National Review, gives space to commentator Jonathan Tobin’s glib assertion “The U.N.’s latest doomsaying comes off as hyperbole, not science.” In my not-so-humble opinion, Tobin must have confined his “background” on this topic to the IPCC report’s 3 page “headline statement,” rather than to the 1,136 pages of report authored by 91 scientists. Rush Limbaugh predictably sounded the alarm that Hurricane Michael would be used by liberals to “advance the whole politics-of-climate change agenda and everything,” and equally predictably Vox provide a platform to Mary Anaise Heglar (“How to deal with despair over climate change”), pointing out that the IPCC report revealed “a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions. These people are locking you and everything you love into a tomb… We can’t pretend this isn’t happening anymore. … We are the adults in this room.”  

Vox’s article, despite its breathlessness, usefully pointed to “10 ways to accelerate progress against climate change. “  The ten ways are:  price carbon emissions; subsidize clean energy, and end subsidies for dirty energy; electrify everything and get more efficient; Invest in innovation; require “zero deforestation” supply chains; discourage meat and dairy consumption, encourage plant-based diets; and, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  I started to labor on teasing apart these topics into meaningful lessons for us, the biosolids industry, on how we might be a solution to the climate crisis.  

Before I had gotten very far, I heard from Vance. Vance, like me, is a Prius-owning, a cappella singer, but, unlike me, he is an activist vegan. Vance had fun calling me out: “Bill, there is one way that you, personally, can accelerate progress; you can, at this very moment,give up all meat, dairy and eggs, and thereby stop the slaughter of sentient beings, the pollution by manure of our rivers, and the increase of methane from cow farts. Pledge yourself to veganism right now! or at least buy a ticket to my next event on November 2.”

Oh man! I hate being called out. I was holding a handful of Doritos during our rehearsal “afterglow.” What?!!  I learned that vegans won’t eat Doritos because whey is used in its manufacture?!” How absurd to call veganism a pathway to climate salvation?! But there again I am sure my gut microbes scream in pain when doused with Doritos.

Well, is it any less absurd to argue that biosolids can be a meaningful way to respond to the IPCC 1.5C report? I believe it is NOT absurd.

Biosolids digestion produces biogas, which supplants fossil fuels. Biogas can be fuel for co-generation at WRRFs, which works toward energy resilience and neutrality.  Hundreds of articles have focused on this source of decentralized electricity. We have companies set up to do just this: Anaergia and Energy Services Group are two with projects in the Mid Atlantic.  Biogas can also be compressed as a vehicle fuel: Unison Solutions uses its BioCNG system to create a “green fuel.” If a WRRF takes in high strength organic liquids into its digesters, the prospect of “ Energy positive wastewater treatment and sludge management” is plausible.

Biosolids can be thermally “depolymerized” under high temperature and pressure to produce gases, bio-oils or charcoal. Aries Clean Energy and SÜLZLE KOPF produce syngas. TerraNova Energy purports to make a coal substitute out of sludges using hydrothermal carbonization. Several West Coast agencies are supporting pilot operations by Genifuel of hydrothermal liquefaction to produce liquid biocrude. Another byproduct of non-burning thermal processes is biochar, which can have some beneficial soil properties. Biochar can be used for carbon sequestration.

But you don’t need to go as far as biochar to have carbon sequestration.  Biosolids of the class B sort is a sufficiently stable carbon that it adds to soil carbon more than other amendments. Also, when applied to low carbon soils, the carbon added is fixed and builds soil fertility; the benefits are large and verifiable. MABA friend Sally Brown wrote on this subject in her BioCycle magazine article  Building Carbon Credits With Biosolids Recycling

Someday (though increasingly that “some” is a far off day), carbon sequestration may have real monetary value. The New U.N. Climate Report Says Put a High Price on Carbon suggests you will be paid for the added benefit that biosolids is a perfect “low-carbon” fertilizer for agriculture and for the decreased Greenhouse Gas footprint of farming. Just imagine the solutions to biosolids management that might be possible if carbon (as CO2) is priced at $100 per ton.

I believe that in land restoration biosolids has its “highest and best” use, with its carbon and nutrients deployed to revitalize landscapes for production of cellulosic biomass crops.   

Biomass can be used for bioenergy.  In Experimental biomass harvest a step toward sustainable, biofuels-powered future, the authors write “We estimate that we can harvest 20 to 30 units of energy per unit of fossil energy invested in producing the crop, leading to fuel with a very low carbon footprint,… "The fact that this biomass can be converted to liquid fuel is one of the main advantages of shrub willow and other biomass crops. Low carbon liquid fuels are especially important for long distance transportation, shipping and aviation, where electric vehicles are not practical."

Cellulosic biomass may have uses beyond energy.  New technologies are converting biomass into biopolymers, replacing fossil sources of these chemicals. The products are biodegradable and may be less harmful when discharged to the environment. This case was well presented in: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Interrelation of Urban and Forest Sectors in Reclaiming One Hectare of Land in the Pacific Northwest.

Can you imagine a day when bioenergy crops replace livestock feed as the principal crop in the Mid Atlantic?

The IPCC report also pointed to the opportunity of algae production as an offset to fossil fuel. I am particularly intrigued by the opportunity to combine algal systems with wastewater. Clearas is a technology that now has reference facilities showing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus removal from effluent, while producing a new kind of “biosolids,” this one an algal biomass. Clearas has an “off-take” agreement for the beneficial use in bioproducts for high value personal care products.  Greater Chicago WRD is working on a similar algae system -- a “revolving algal biofilm, consisting of disks rotating in nutrient rich wastewater on which  from algae grows. It will use ceramic membranes to concentrate the algae for extraction of high value chemicals, in particular biopolymers to replace fossil-carbon based polymers.

If you chose technology sufficiently sophisticated as to produce algae, you might also be interested in extraction of biopolymers and proteins produced during fermentation. In one sense, WRRFs with anaerobic digester are already engaged in fermentation, as it is a part of the path to methane production. But if interrupted, anaerobic systems can stop at a stage of fermentation that yields chemical components of higher value than methane. These are PHAs, or Polyhydoxyalkanoates, particularly of the butyrate form (see Polyhydroxyalkanoates: An Overview). PHB can be used as inputs to production of bioplastic (“green plastic”), which can be used to manufacture plastic bottles.  The science of biomass conversion to biopolymers is speeding along. The wastewater industry (PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) production potential of activated sludge treating wastewater) can look to catch the coattails and be part of the future of biodegradable bioplastics.

Proteins are another potential off-take of biosolids fermentation. Protein synthesis is another emerging technology area of vast interest in the fight against climate change, and a primary ingredient, ammonia, is a compound plentiful in wastewater. Researchers have already begun exploring means of producing proteins from wastewater (Can direct conversion of used nitrogen to new feed and protein help feed the world?). Once produced, proteins can be formulated into feed for animals and humans, even to the extent of manufacturing meat.

The replacement of livestock agriculture with plant-based meat substitutes was put forward by the IPCC report as a key action. Consider the possibility of Huge reduction in meat-eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown.  An emerging industry in manufacture meats is unfolding, gently put forward by the Good Food Institute in its Plant-Based Meat Mind Maps, and which is underscored by rave reviews for Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. But, for much of the world, meat consumption is a primary signal of reduced impoverishment (Global Meat Production and Consumption Continue to Rise), albeit a signal with serious environmental and human health consequences.

Just as the world may not be ready for manufactured meats, the world is not likely to respond to challenges put forth by the IPCC report.  Nobel prize-winning economist (2018), William Nordhaus, with a 40-year-long career in carbon taxation research, admitted that the likely scenario is a terrible overshoot of the global temperature goals, resulting in famine, extreme heat and massive flooding (see After Nobel in Economics, William Nordhaus Talks About Who’s Getting His Pollution-Tax Ideas Right). This overshoot may be necessary to whiplash humanity into taking the kind of actions that will finally compel nations, including and especially the U.S, to change course.  

The biosolids industry could be a leader in this global course correction, and we need not wait to be whiplashed into doing so. We could deploy biosolids today to produce biofuels, biopolymers, and even proteins in place of fossil carbon. I thought I was being comical when in my 1998 paper, “Horror, Humor and Heroes,” I led off with a World Weekly News story proclaiming: “POTTY PATTIES! Hamburgers made from raw sewage are a big hit in Japan.” I had discovered back then that the story had derived from a kernel of truth -- Japanese researchers had experimented with protein production from biosolids, and had manufactured sausages.  Here I am, in 2018, whiplashed by the realization that “potty patties” may be yet proved one way that biosolids solves the climate crisis.

Will Biomass Replace Oil for Plastics Manufacture?

That day must come, and soon, as the health of Earth’s ecosystems may hinge on human’s ending its exponential growth of plastic wastes. That the more marginal soils of our region might be deployed for biomass cultivation and that these crops and soils will need nutrients and organic matter, I can see no better resource, no lower greenhouse gas source, than biosolids. Then, that day will have come when we have achieved Biosolids to Bioplastics.

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Boundary Pushing Biosolids Research

I was literally stopped in my (running) tracks when Eric Haseltine in a TED Radio Hour podcast interview (Eric Haseltine: Can The Past Guide Us To Future Scientific Breakthroughs?) asserted that leaps forward in science come from those pre-eminent scientists who push the boundaries of established scientific knowledge. This struck a chord because I had picked up on some recent science stories about  “boundary pushing” and realized I was quite vague in our own field of “biosolids science” just who is doing such “boundary pushing."

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Presentations from the W3170 Meeting in Chicago

We are facing evidence of nitrogen and phosphorus releases, risks from persistent pollutants, the ongoing need to mitigate odor nuisances, the concern for antibiotic resistance gene migration, and the opportunity to restore soil health, to name a few big ones.  Our industry’s integrity and reputation are at risk if we fail to support the level of scholarship that can apply current tools, knowledge and scientific skills to these topics and to questions reasonably posed by our customers and regulators. I say, the time has come for us to re-invest in science. If you do, prepare yourself for the many Surprises of Biosolids Science.

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Reducing Cyanobacteria Stimulation with Appropriate Biosolids Treatment, Soil Quality Assessments and Tillage Equipment

We confront a peculiar predicament. Some 14 billion years now into our history, humans still need to learn how to properly manage their own biosolids. We need to choose the right treatment technologies, the right soils, and the right tillage equipment if we are to avoid discharges of nutrients that stimulate cyanobacteria to produce biotoxins deadly to fish, cattle and maybe even humans.

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Dewatering Performance of Bio-P Plants.

We are seeing real team spirit in our wastewater community for solving the challenge to dewatering performance of Bio-P plants. Though it will certainly not yield a million-person street parade, like the Eagle's Super Bowl celebration in Philadelphia, someday we will rightfully celebrate a SOLID BIOSOLIDS PERFORMANCE!

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Biosolids Experts Within Our Human Supraorganism

We individual biosolids experts need to work more as part of a human “supraorganism.” We all need to imagine our biosolids processes optimized and controlled in real time and automatically via the kind of DNA sequencing and spectrometry that is deployed in other disciplines.  We need to study the inexplicable growth-promoting capabilities of biosolids as fervently as the Pentagon studied the inexplicable maneuvering capabilities of unidentified flying objects. But, in our case, we need to study biosolids as a different sort of UFO, say Uniquely Fertile Organics.

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Transforming Wastewater into Useful Chemicals

The C&E News article is replete with entrepreneurial joy at the chance to transform wastewater into useful chemicals. We biosolids professionals are accustomed to urging resource recovery, but let us go even further in a joyful embrace of Biosolids Alchemy.

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Biosolids Top Soil Getting our Feet on the Ground

Top soil manufactured with biosolids is where we set our sights. Let's go back to those soil blends that Terry Logan and Billie Lindsay were designing twenty years ago, and let's jump onto those blends that Greg Evanylo has been testing over the past two years through his WE&RF High Quality Biosolids research. That is where biosolids lends its best features, particularly its phosphorus, where biosolids offers the most value, and where biosolids is “tops.” Let’s focus our biosolids programs on the manufacture of a Top Sustainable Top Soil.

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A Gamer's Fantacy of Biosolids Master Planning

We can dream big about how we build the biosolids infrastructure of our future cities, and to do so against shifting technology, uncertain finance, changing regulation, and political resistance. But our dreams may remain fantasies without the kind of support from our customers and from environmental activists who ought to be our allies, not opponents, needed to achieve clean water and better soils. To get to that wonderful place, we may need to dive into unfamiliar popular culture of gaming and movie making to draw in political and financial support.   

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Biosolids Place in Addressing Antibiotic Resistant Genes and Concerns over Global Dystopia

The state-of-knowledge on wastewater and land treatment effects on ARG transmission is still early. Research today suggests that enhancement of treatment plant and land application practices can provide sound and effective barriers. If you make biosolids products that measure very low in indicator organisms and that attract no flies, you are likely doing well already. So, while climate change may continue to wreak havoc with rising sea levels, sulfide gases, unlivable heat, and crop failures, we can nevertheless be soundly managing our corner of the world. A global dystopia may inevitably descend, but at least we will be maintaining a Biosolids Utopia. 

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Biosolids spot in the Journal of Environmental Quality "Top Two" Papers of 2016

The Journal of Environmental Quality announced its "top two," 2016 JEQ Best Paper Award recipients. The TOP TWO issues can be helped solved by Biosolids. It can do so in its Class B, low cost form, but for disjointed programs, policies and priorities that interfere with biosolids use in P deficient areas. 

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