Not Class A and Not EQ Biosolids

I get more than a bit annoyed when people in our industry say, “This process produces a Class A biosolids,” with a clear intention to connote, “we got a great, GRADE A, wonderful product.”

NOPE! Class A doesn’t mean that.

I am a little less argumentative when I hear an explanation, “this technology produces an EQ biosolids,” with a kind of “wink” in the voice intended to convey a false confidence to listeners that the “exceptional quality” output is very nearly “ready to shipped to homeowners for garden use.”

Again, NOPE, EQ doesn’t mean that.

I am on the WERF project team for “High Quality Biosolids from Wastewater,” and within our team we have been applying the name “HQB” to the variety of samples delivered from our partnering municipal biosolids generators. The research is intended to develop objective measurement tools to sort EQ products that are “ready for the homeowner” from those not so ready.

Class A Biosolids is a hopelessly misleading label, and EQ Biosolids is too broad a label. What we are researching has no good name.

Having no name is no small problem. If you have no name for a class of objects, how are you going to argue for its importance?

You may have recalled the fascinating kerfuffle back in February 2015 over the color of a bridesmaid’s dress in an image carried in an internet newsfeed. Some viewers perceived the dress as black and blue and others as white and gold. If you don’t remember taking a side on this, then go back to the NY Times article:  The White and Gold (No, Blue and Black!) Dress That Melted the Internet .

What we learned from this story is that the mind has a big role to play in the perception of color, and it will fix a label to nerve signals in some curious ways. One expert made the point that “You Only See Colors You Can Name.” And this observation has a broader context in the dated and somewhat discredited Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which states, in part: “if we don’t have a word for a concept, we cannot think about it.”  In this particular case, the perceptual challenge is over dress color, for us in biosolids we have the perceptual challenge over odor and appearance, potentially even more controversial.

Applying the concept of naming to biosolids, if we don’t have a word for the concept of biosolids that is “better” than EQ biosolids, how can we think about it? Or, perhaps more meaningfully, can we find a word that describes the kind of biosolids that DC Water is making, in its newly branded Bloom, the product of its new Cambi THP and the beautiful new digesters and presses? Without such a word, how are we going to advocate that this product is in a class apart from “EQ Biosolids.” Though now 20 years old and somewhat dated, EQ has been such an agreeable term, so why change?

I say we need a change, and I argue for an additional “term of art" that goes beyond EQ.

This would not be the first time that our humble profession has taken on this kind of task. Thanks to the work of an activist group, we have a decent historiography for the artful word “Biosolids.” In the article of the same name, BIOSOLIDS, we are reminded of this story:  “In 1990, the task force sponsored a contest to come up with a more marketable name… In 1991, the task force settled on "biosolids," a word chosen, in good Orwellian fashion, for its positive, reassuring connotations. The sewage industry then began a public-relations campaign to place "biosolids" in the dictionary…. Machno wrote in a 1994 letter to Paul Cappellano, an editor at Merriam-Webster: ‘I am pleased that the term sludge will not appear in the definition.’"

This mission struck author Sheldon Rampton as “greenwashing,” for which he made his case asco-author with John Staub in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You , (which, by the way, is available as a used book on Amazon for as low a price as $0.01). Nevertheless, the world now has adopted the definition:  Biosolid n. (1977): Solid organic matter recovered from a sewage treatment process, and used especially as fertilizer -- usually used in plural.”

So, now 25 years later, are we ready to step out once again with a naming exercise?

I wanted to check in with colleagues who work with a range of residuals for land application, to see if language had been deployed more richly to manures and other organics than with biosolids. I called Andrew Carpenter, freshly returned home to Maine from his guest appearance at the Northwest Biosolids Management Association Biofest 2016. He told me that, coincidentally, he had been charged by USDA to help rewrite terminology for forms of dairy manure.  No longer would four classes – solid, semi-solid, slurry and liquid – be adequate. We are waiting for more.

Carpenter quickly provided me a twist. He suggested we needed a whole new word, not just a word borrowed from others. He said his favorite novelist, a local author Cormack McCarthy (Carpenter suggests Suttree though he warns it is violent), when he needs to, just makes up his own words: e.g., pinchbeck.  But more often he uses word that are incredible obscure, such as this great one: “ordurous”. This was a first-time word for me, and I love obscure words. Ordurous has a relevant definition for our industry. At “ordurous” is defined “as pertaining to excrement: dung;”  but it has a telling second definition, as “something regarded as being morally offensive.”

As illustrated in the Rampton article, our industry seems to get that negative connotation with biosolids, and we get it a lot more than we deserve.  And that, in itself, may be a good reason to find a new word.

Carpenter had a great one, and it popped out immediately. We had been sharing our mutual admiration for the word that is at the heart of his consultancy’s (Northern Tllth) name. That word is TILTH, and we bemoaned living in a world in which this word is not in common usage. But, in response to the challenge for a new word for biosolids that goes way beyond EQ, Carpenter declaimed: BILTH.

You can see immediately the appeal of combining “biosolids” with “tilth.”

Of course, not everyone would align on this.  And there is so much fun with looking at a range of new words. For example, “rith” (think rich and tilth), “gror”” (think grow and organic), “sloam” (think sludge and loam). This is just with a few moments of word play!

Even as we set off on a naming exercise, we need also to come up with a set of principles that we have in mind for what such a new word would capture. The attributes of a biosolids that is captured by this new word would need to be rich in organic matter and nutrients, it would have an earthy odor, it would be free of pathogens, it would be soft to the touch and easy to mix with soil, and it could be bagged or stacked in piles behind the garden shed. We would need to think of how to define some of the attributes of “handle-ability,” “mix-ability,” and “store-ability.”

And, if a biosolids product of this kind could be said to possess BILTH, then perhaps it could instead be said to be SQ Biosolids (short for Superior Quality Biosolids) or to be TOP Biosolids (Transportable, Odor-free, Pathogen-free). Dr. Bob Reimers has been for long the champion of Value Added Biosolids, which readily abbreviates as VA Biosolids.

William Shakespeare penned Juliet’s famous line "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But I believe the obverse is true for us, and that a "biosolids by any other name could smell much sweeter." Help me select the Biosolids Other Name.