Biosolids Makes a Better Environment

Keep it Simple, Stupid.  K.I.S.S.  I don’t know where I first heard that acronym.  Abiding by its wisdom doesn’t come naturally to me, as I wallow in complexity and uncertainty.  When we tell our biosolids story, we need to K.I.S.S.  And, we need to K.I.S.S. a lot more than we have been doing.

I was reminded of this on the school bus heading to the starting line of last Saturday’s 2nd Half Marathon in San Francisco. The West Coast geek who shared my cramped seat had responded to my line of work with “don’t the heavy metals in biosolids mean that you can make sludge into bricks but can’t use it on farms?” When I registered surprise, he said, “That is probably what I learned in grade school.” That would have been some 40 years earlier.

Why, after 20 plus years of national regulation and the NBP and EMS programs for biosolids, do most citizens, if they have any notion at all, think heavy metals when they hear sewage sludge?

This reminded me of a briefing, over 20 years ago now, on the results of WEF’s “Powell Tate Study” for marketing biosolids. I remember it as having a K.I.S.S.-type approach. No longer able to find it in my library, I held my breath when I googled “Powell Tate, biosolids” to see what I could find.  .

The Google results were quite a mixed bag -- some bad, some good, and even an old Toffey paper.

On the negative side, Google pointed to several familiar slams at Powell Tate. We get the Bynum’s (a husband and wife team of safety expert) web-based E-book DEADLY DECEIT:  OUR CHILDREN AT RISK FROM SEWAGE SLUDGE/BIOSOLIDS.  We have a couple of free-lance science writers: Laura Orlando, with The Sludge Scam: Should Sewage Sludge Fertilize Your Vegetables, and Wendy Priesnitz with The Real Dirt on Sewage Sludge.  Each of these use the theme derived from John Stauber’s 2002 book Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, still available on Amazon, speculating on an unholy alliance between EPA and PR industry to “greenwash” the dangers of biosolids.

On the positive side, Google pointed to mostly conference papers.  Several were ably penned by Ned Beecher of North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA); one, co-authored with BioCycle’s Nora Goldstein, Invest in the Social Aspects of Biosolids Management, a message our industry still mostly ignores.  My paper, Gatekeepers: Who they are? What they think about us? And what can we do about it?, opened with a playful rhetorical device, asking if the TV ad using sex to sell a nail fungus treatment might inspire us to use sex to sell sludge. It didn’t and still doesn’t.

But the more useful reference to the Powell Tate study was by Mark Lang, POWELL TATE’S COMMUNICATION PLAN ON BIOSOLIDS TWELVE EARTH DAYS LATER.  Lang’s paper summarized well the recommendations of the Powell Tate Communication Plan. Along with me, you might noe remember them, a K.I.S.S.-type tagline with three messages “tracks”:

Biosolids Recycling: Beneficial Technology for a Better Environment

Message Track Number One: Environmental – Biosolids recycling benefits the environment through recycling and beneficial use.

Message Track Number Two: Agriculture – Biosolids use helps farmers and benefits crops.

Message Track Number Three: Health and Safety - Biosolids have been thoroughly researched and found to be safe and beneficial to people and the environment.

This is definitely in the vein of K.I.S.S.  The Powell Tate recommendations were good back in 1993, and they remain relevant in 2015. We need to relentlessly put out the message “biosolids makes for a better environment.”

Where are we this clear? I confess you won’t find such clarity on the MABA website (note to myself!).

I checked WEF’s available documents.   Its basic biosolids information is now on the Technical Resources Page. I was struck by a lengthy list of documents, none of which revisits the Powell Tate Communications Plan, and none of which, even the promisingly-titled A Guide To Understanding Biosolids Issues, provide clear, hard-hitting evidence that biosolids make for a better environment.

On the other hand, if you want to get lost in the weeds of compelling evidence, go to WERF’s publications. Evaluating Risks and Benefits of Soil Amendments Used in Agriculture explains: “the project team performed a comprehensive literature survey, reviewing and compiling the results from nearly 500 documents (primarily from academic journals and texts),” but this publication has no great “quotables.”   Ten years earlier, WERF had a team prepare Document Long Term Experience of Biosolids Land Application Programs, looking at ten programs across the U.S. from the 1980s.   It is instructive, detailed, but outdated.

For the sheer of joy of soil enrichment, we do have several great sources of case studies.  The Virginia Biosolids Council website features each quarter a new testimonial of happy biosolids users. Currently you can read about Walter Gentry, of Spotsylvania, Virginia.   Our Northwest friends have what I hope is now familiar to you as the LOOP Biosolids: A Sustainable Choice, featuring video clips success stories.  Though focusing more on addressing quality and regulatory issues, North East Biosolids and Residuals Association’s Saving Soil: Biosolids Recycling in New England from 2001 has important case studies of successful recycling.

Strangely, for all our enthusiasm for the Powell Tate message, we mostly still fail to show how “biosolids makes for a better environment.”

In asking Google Scholar, my favorite of all search tools, for help, I came to an unexpected conclusion. Much new research is currently being published internationally, so we don’t need to rely on decades-old work here in the U.S.

A recent issue of Applied and Environmental Soil Science focused on biosolids and offered an opening editorial, Biosolids Soil Application: Agronomic and Environmental Implications 2013,  that concluded “the use of biosolids as a source of organic matter improves the physical and chemical properties of agricultural soils, resulting in an increase in crop yields.”  Jordanian researchers, in a 2014 paper Combined land application of treated wastewater and biosolids enhances crop production and soil fertility, determined that “combined land application of TWW [treated waste water] and biosolids improves crop production and enhances soil fertility level without significant impact on the environment and human health.”  Nova Scotia researchers reported significant benefits in their paper, Long-term influences on nitrogen dynamics and pH in an acidic sandy soil after single and multi-year applications of alkaline treated biosolids.  This is new research!

Use of biosolids to grow energy crops is a new and popular research topic. New Zealand researchers reported Effects of biosolids on biodiesel crop yield and belowground communities, and Spanish researchers authored Sewage sludge compost use in bioenergy production – a case study on the effects on Cynara cardunculus L energy crop .  Our colleagues at Virginia Tech described the potentially special role for biosolids in fertilizing energy crops in Switchgrass Response to Cutting Frequency and Biosolids Amendment: Biomass Yield, Feedstock Quality, and Theoretical Ethanol Yield.

But my greatest find was the MWRDGC (Chicago) research program on carbon sequestration.   In Biosolids amendment dramatically increases sequestration of crop residue-carbon in agricultural soils in western Illinois the Chicago team reports: “The study concludes use of a soil amendment with high stable C and low C:N is a valid approach to transform agricultural soils from current C-neutral status to a C sink. Biosolids represent a good choice of such soil amendments.”

Increased field crop growth, biogenic nutrients for bioenergy crops, accelerated carbon sequestration – biosolids makes a better environment, and current science proves it to be true.

We need to tell this great story, and remember, when we do, to K.I.S.S.