Opportunities for Resource Recovery

At Dunkin Donuts, the cashier circles her name so I may give feedback to corporate Dunkin’ on my satisfaction with the visit. Every tenth time or so that I use my GPS running app on the iPhone I am invited to a survey on how well it worked. As I am getting off a complaint line with AllState as to why I could have reasonably obtained a police report for minor hit-and-run damage to the rear hatch on my Prius necessary for an accident claim, I get an invite for a customer satisfaction survey from AllState in my email.

Thank heavens my toilet doesn’t squawk at each flush with an offer to survey my satisfaction with my morning’s flush.

Hey, wait. May be there is the seed of an idea here!

Collecting real time consumer satisfaction data has become pervasive, if not downright intrusive, in our daily commercial interactions. Have we, who work in the area of public utilities, considered how we might join in on this aspect of customer relations?

I am spending time in the domain of customer satisfaction with biosolids for several reasons. First, in our weekly “Biosolids in the News,” we have a parade of complaints from many corners of the world about biosolids odors and neighbor concerns. In my MABA role, I seek to be an advocate for biosolids, and that mission is challenged by the kind of sadly hot rhetoric reported in our region’s media. Then there is my role in the new High Quality Biosolids research project with WERF that will involve a survey of producers, marketers and users to better understand features of biosolids products that work, or don’t .

We have a long tradition of NOT looking at customer satisfaction in the way we produce and distribute biosolids. Do we call the neighbors after the farmer’s field is spread and ask if we delivered on the promise of no odors? Do we call the farmer and ask how the corn is growing? Do we call the township supervisors and survey them for how good a neighbor we have been with our recycling program?

In fact, we have a long practice of paying NO attention to what biosolids product quality is like from a user or neighbor standpoint. I am looking for evidence that this behavior on our part is changing, but…

I was reminded of this gap in reviewing the IRR. IRR???

Two weeks ago, while I was touring Mid-West farm digesters, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) was in Manhattan sponsoring the IRR, Intensification of Resource Recovery symposium. What an amazing program of challenging technology introductions. I reviewed the excellent précis of some three dozen IRR technologies. One group of technologies focused on thermochemical processing of biosolids, meaning the application of various strategies for depolymerizing organic matter. A second, large group focused on transforming wet stream processes with novel approaches, including various filters and membranes for anaerobic processing after primary separation and new systems to supply oxygen for activated sludge growth. A third group sought to extract nutrients, especially nitrogen or phosphorus, from within water reclamation facilities. A fourth group, not generalizable, propose other creative “resourcings,” for instance producing bioplastic or algae.

The IRR attendees heard a lot about great technologies for operations within the fence line, but did they hear about technologies that deliver great biosolids outside the fence line?

I am tempted to draw ire from my colleagues by saying “no.”

My colleagues’ irritated disagreement might be justified. After all, thermal hydrolysis (TH) and its WAS preconditioning cousins were at the dais. Compared to conventional systems, these technologies accomplish higher conversion of organic matter and greater yield of methane. Cambi reviewed the phenomenal growth of its TH system, now at play at wastewater facilities serving 50 million people. Veolia’s Kruger represented its Biothelys (batch) and Exelys (continuous) TH equipment. Arisdyne Systems introduced its cavitation system and ElectroCell Technologies its electrical pulses for disrupting activated sludge cells, also ahead digestion. Anaergia described Omnivore for extending hydraulic retention time by recycling solids within anaerobic digesters, thereby yielding more organic matter conversion to methane.

How do the biosolids from such technologies compare, once out of the facility and at the farm? No one is saying.

My complaint is that the ultimate customer of the residual output of these technologies had no role, even invisible, at the conference. Steven Jobs’ genius at Apple was in designing products that people want, not in being a leading edge technology. Why is not our technology being driven by consumer demand?

We have hope that thermal hydrolysis will produce a consumer-desired soil product. But the DC Water decision to invest $500 million in its new solids system was only in part driven by meeting the test of the marketplace. Now that the technology is in place, experimentation with product quality is finally underway. Even with so enormous a capital investment, the ultimate user of the customer gets what he gets. (Let me hasten to add that Chris Peot and his staff will be striving mightily to make the most of the TH/AD material.)

Thermal processes have a similar gap between the technology and output quality. While Kore Infrastructure yields a fuel product, diesel fuel, with definable properties, other thermochemical projects yield oils and biochars that in the marketplace may not find valuable uses.

The science of biochar is a lot more complicated that one might expect. Different temperatures of production yield chars of as much variability as biosolids. Some biochars are not effective for supporting healthy soils and others are. See, for example, “Biochar characteristics relate to its utility as an alternative soil inoculum carrier to peat and vermiculite.” How did the IRR technologies compare in biochar quality? We await future IRR conferences, perhaps.

Even the nutrient extraction and carbon conversion approaches at the IRR leave me wondering if the output is considered. Why oxidize ammonium when ammonium can be recycled to agriculture? Why oxidize organic matter, when depletion of organic matter in soils is a global environmental issue?

When I step back from the excitement and inventiveness of the IRR technologies themselves, I am left with the thought: have we drawn the boundary too small to best understand the opportunities for resource recovery at our treatment plants? Perhaps we need, as a starting point, to look beyond the fence line to managing for all that is coming in and, especially, for all that is going out. For this we need to ask ALL of our customers, those who flush and those who take our residuals, “How well are we doing?” Dunkin’ Donuts does it, why can’t we?

We may find the politics, the administrative complexity and public relations challenges of enlarging the mission of our treatment systems to accomplish maximum recycling of organic matter and nutrients really complicated. But doing so might really justify a different technology approach and set of technologies altogether. Might this not be, instead, titled “Magnification of Resource Recovery?”