Biosolids Makes A Better Environment!

“Biosolids makes a better environment!”  Biosolids increases field crop growth; it provides biogenic nutrients for bioenergy crop production; and its use accelerates carbon sequestration. This is what I wrote last week. I repeat it this week, because it is short and simple.

The coaching I received from my Instagram-employed son was that effective photo stories on mobile device contain fewer than 100 words. While this was news to me, the idea of simple messaging is all over the Internet, and even in the Wall Street Journal.  When we tell our biosolids stories to the world, we need to remember to “Keep it Simple, Stupid,” K.I.S.S.

K.I.S.S. seemed to be confirmed this week as the perfect message for biosolids.  I received an email from CASA’s Greg Kester about the Kiss the Ground Facebook page, which points to a website and petition signing opportunity at The Soil Story.   Friends of biosolids within California’s Association of Compost Producers (meet Dan Noble) have for long embraced the tagline “We Build Healthy Soils” (so says its domain name “healthysoil.org”) and have been helping promote the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soil Initiative. This effort is now gaining a more global cast. We can “Kiss the Ground” with our simple message on how biosolids improves soils. (Stop reading this and join this FB page now!)

So, with all of this, I thought a new guiding principle for all of my life had been finally revealed. In all ways, I need to “keep it simple.” I event bookmarked “motivational quotes on simplifying” on the Global Stewards website.

Could it be that all of Life and Creation seek simplification?

This seemed to be confirmed, serendipitously and coincidentally, by the NYC RadioLab podcast last week entitled Shrink. It described the recent discovery of the “megavirus.”  This is a lifeform unknown to science until a decade ago, a type of virus much larger than our well-known ones, like influenza, It has 100 times the number of DNA or RNA units of human flu virus.  The hypothesis I fashioned from this podcast was that megaviruses are ancient remnants of more highly evolved, much smaller and all-too-familiar, viruses. What started out at the dawn of life as a parasitic celled organisms had, over billions of years of evolution, shed ineffective, unnecessary, redundant, inefficient, baggage of excess DNA or RNA, and become the most streamlined, economical, efficient of near-life forms, with the very smallest number of DNA units necessary for carrying out infectivity and reproduction.  In my metaphor-driven mind, megaviruses are bloated, complacent bureaucracies, while viruses are lean, flexible, rapid-response start-ups.

WRONG!  So much for anthropomorphizing microbes.

Viruses are damn complicated. The 60th Anniversary edition of Virology journal has this torpid, nearly impenetrable summary: “Strikingly, evolution of all classes of eukaryotic viruses appears to have involved fusion between structural and replicative gene modules derived from different sources along with additional acquisitions of diverse genes.”

If viruses are complex, even more so are other “primordial” life forms.  Get me cornered at a cocktail party and I will ‘wow’ the conversation with that astonishing fact that no longer is LIFE divided into Animals and Plant domains. I am among the cognoscenti aware that a new, third domain of life exists, the Archaea, and within this domain are organisms that produce biomethane.

If that were not awesome enough, I am now bowled over by the incredible news I uncovered after the podcast (and you are hearing it, most likely, first from me!).  Scientists are proposing now A FOURTH DOMAIN OF LIFE!  Yup, MEGAVIRALS: “Reclassification of Giant Viruses Composing a Fourth Domain of Life in the New Order Megavirales.”

Behind the deceiving appearance of simplicity is the terrible fact of complexity.  I faced this week a set of “why is the sky blue” kind of simple questions about biosolids. On the face of each, a simple questions, but none with simple answers.

  1. If a biosolids product has no pathogens, why does it matter if it attracts vectors?
  2. If biosolids is so good for the environment, why is everyone in search of ways to minimize it?
  3. If a biosolids product has essentially zero extractable phosphorus, why are agronomic rates still restricted for phosphorus?
  4. Why do so many agencies dispose of biosolids in landfills when disposal costs three times more that agricultural application?
  5. Why are so many agencies interested in co-digestion when natural gas is so cheap and CHP so expensive?
  6. What are the VAR standards for soil incorporation; is it no biosolids visible at the surface, or is it 10 percent visible or, perhaps, 25 percent?

Another such simple question, one with no simple answer, was why do so few public agencies seek privately-managed solutions to biosolids when those agencies seem to be indifferent to having high quality biosolids programs?

This last “simple” question came up during a visit I had with Fred Mussari, the creative force behind a relatively new biosolids technology firm, BCR Environmental.  Mussari engages the shop floor and laboratory table with equal fearlessness, all in the service of making biosolids better. So his relatively plain sounding (simple?) patent application, “System and methods for generating chlorine dioxide”, does not hint at the life-on-the-line, heroic lab-bench experimentation on which the patent was founded.  Mussari’s story, as he tells it, is more than 100 words. The answer to the simple question about private management is still unfolding, and that, too, will be more than 100 words.

And then a final question came this week in a call at the airport. On its face, it was a simple rant about crop harm from biosolids, but the concern was unusual.  The allegation was that polymers used in dewatering interfere with nutrient release, thereby causing stunted crop growth.