How Manure and Biosolids May Become ONE RESIDUAL

WEFTEC in New Orleans introduced me to a new theme in our water industry: ONE WATER.

This was the main theme for the new WERF, that is WE&RF: the new Water Environment and Reuse Foundation.   Most of you recognize WERF as the Water Environment Research Foundation. But you may not know the other Alexandria- based group called WRRF, or the Water ReUse Research Foundation. Two groups with such homonymous and mission similarities would make a synergistic merger as WE&RF seem, in retrospect at least, obvious. And that is what they did this summer. This important development is described in a recent WEF article: WERF and WateReuse Merge To Advance Concept of One Water.

The new executive director for WE&RF, Melissa Meeker, said in a WEF article: “for the utility of the future that seeks to maximize recovery and deliver fit-for-purpose water…[a] “One Water’ concept emphasizes that water quality is our focus, not the history of where the water has been … [This] will have a positive impact on the public’s understanding of water quality issues in general.”

But do biosolids, in the case of wastewater, and brine, in the case of reuse processes, fit into ONE WATER? Not really.

How about “ONE RESIDUAL”?

Many of us have already played with the notion that biosolids deserves to play in the same sandbox as manure and other organic residuals.  We took on many years ago the regulatory discrimination of biosolids made part of the USDA’s National Organic Program, and lost, salving our feelings with the notion that this was a marketing decision, not a science-based decision.

More recently there was Whole Foods. We were alerted to its pending “policy” on biosolids [Whole Foods to stop selling produce grown in human sewage sludge], which was pressed on them by the same group, PR Watch, that brought you  Toxic Sludge is Good for You program. But we again faced a marketing campaign that had no interest in considering scientific and rational arguments. A quick tour of the CDC’s Food Safety News will give you the source of real health risks from food (General Mills flour and E coli…. Hmmm, how did that happen?), and that risk isn’t from biosolids. Occasionally “organic” products show up in the CDC site. But when it comes to biosolids, the marketing people at the USDA and Whole Foods just aren’t interested in science.

So we sucked up the National Organic Program and Whole Foods, and moved on. Perhaps we would find better public acceptance if we were to partner our biosolids with food scraps and yard wastes. The current enthusiasm for co-digestion and “intensification of resource recovery” as features of municipal WRRF services may well be more than a play for tipping fees, but arise from a sincere desire to be of greater service, to be in a bigger tent to achieve community sustainability.

There are examples of big-tent organizations, and composting seems to attract them. I like the unifying approach of the California based  Association of Compost Producers. Its executive director Dan Noble has been a champion for a “one organics” approach, at least with respect to the feedstocks used in composting. He focuses the ACP, which is a state chapter of the US Composting Council [if you don’t know of the USCC’s quality assurance program, the Seal of Testing Assurance, or its program to train and certify composters, check it out],  on the quality of the output compost product and on its soil-building performance. The focus of this organization is captured in the inspiring tagline -- “We Build Healthy Soils.” Noble argues for the “one-ness” to the feedstock, and he defuses the tendency of some composters among its membership to market products with a “contains no sewage sludge” feature on the label. He also focuses on the BENEFITS of the output, not on the character of the input.  This is a lesson the biosolids profession is still learning.

Noble is also the conceptualizer of a “bioproducts market,” with feedstock, technology and products comprising three legs. His background analysis contains estimates that show biosolids is a mere 1 percent of the total organic biomass available for conversion into useful bioproducts for the marketplace.  He estimates that over two-thirds of the biomass in the US and Canada is animal manures. Our industry’s paltry 7 million dry tons annually of biosolids contrasts to the 500 million dry tons of animal manures.

Oh my!  How can we confirm this wide gap in tonnages when there is no “Manure Environment Federation” nor a “National Manure Partnership?”  500 million tons annually of manure apparently is not sufficient to cause a professional organization to be formed, as we have with wastewater and biosolids. This is sarcasm.

The gap in attention to the elephant in the room of biomass, manure, is not because science has shown manure to be safe and without environmental effects. The gap more likely arises from the end-game of a political sacred cow.  Research into its environmental and health effects is thereby starved for funds. Google Scholar, when searched for “environmental effects of biosolids” came up with 16,400 references, and when searched for “environmental effects of animal feedlots” (which I liken to municipal treatment plants) came up with 15,100 references. Seventy times the biomass, but a lower count on research.

Where can we learn of the effects of manure on the environment and human health?

Few national reports are available on the topic of environmental effects of concentrated animal feedlots. One such is Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities which was prepared by the National Association of Local Boards of Health. It concludes that local health officials have very many reasons to be alert to CAFOs.

What about the effects of manure on the safety of food crops?

The FDA has the regulatory authority for leadership in this area, but this terrain is fraught with political minefields.  For some insight, look at “What Is FDA Doing to Promote the Safe Use of Manure and Compost on Crops? Questions and Answers with Michael Mahovic” (head of FDA’s Consumer Safety Division). FDA originally proposed regulations calling for manure stabilization prior to its use as fertilizer for human food crops, but was compelled to back off until more science could be supplied.

How does research into manure compare to biosolids on the lively topic of TOrCs (Toxic Organic Compounds)? In biosolids we have many dozens of papers, and WE&RF has a couple of projects completed and in the pipeline. But what is known about TOrCs in manure?  This is from an abstract of a literature review for December 2016 publication (already?!),  Occurrence and transformation of veterinary pharmaceuticals and biocides in manure: a literature review : “Within the 27 evaluated publications, 1568 manure samples were analyzed and 39 different active substances for VMPs [veterinary medicinal products]and 11 metabolites and transformation products of VMPs could be found in manure. Most often, the samples were analyzed for sulfonamides, tetracyclines, and fluoroquinolones. Not one study searched for biocides or worked with a non-target approach. For sulfadiazine and chlortetracycline, concentrations exceeding the predicted environmental concentrations were found.”

Similarly, In the 2015 paper, Human health risk assessment of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in plant tissue due to biosolids and manure amendments, and wastewater irrigation, researchers say health risks are de minimus, which is good,  but qualify that with “work needs to be done to assess the risk of the mixture of PPCPs that may be present in edible tissue of plants grown under these three amendment practices.” Yes, and we know that the avenues of inquiry are numerous, but from where will the research funds come except from interest groups demanding more research into impacts of manure.

The new WE&RF is not likely to take on manure research, even if it would be a help to biosolids. Our professional association is already aligned with manufacturers and suppliers to the agricultural and food industries. We already have a media champion in this area, BioCycle Magazine.  This encourages me to boldly recommend that biosolids professionals reach out to other sectors beyond WEF and the WateReuse Association and develop its own organizational champion to cover the bioproducts marketplace, say the National Organics Recovery Association (this is for you, Nora Goldstein) perhaps embracing the tagline: One Residual.