Remarkable Biosolids

Just blame Maile.  Because of Maile Lono-Batura, executive director of Northwest Biosolids, I have spent (wasted?) several hours trying to figure out “memes.”  According to the website 50 Internet Memes that Have Won Our Hearts: Viral humor, bizarre curiosities, and infectious storytelling, “Memes are cultural symbols and social ideas that spread virally. The meme content itself is usually something of minor every day. The noteworthy aspect of a meme is its infectious nature: It invites people to spread it through social media, email, and photo-sharing.”

Did you get that? Memes are those pesky distractions you get when you are moving through the internet, something catches your attention, and, suddenly, you are off course.  Clearly, I don’t get distracted enough or I would not have missed The Extreme Diet Coke & Mentos Experiments and Build Your Own Demotivational Calendar. Had I come across this “meme,” featuring one of my heroes, I would have been guilty of assisting its “virality:” Mr. Rogers Remixed: Garden of Your Mind. But believe it or not, I had no idea that number one on the list of “50 favorite memes” is the meme “Be Like Bill,” for which I am flattered, sort of.  Be Like Bill is “a passive-aggressive meme, featuring a stick figure, that comments on people's life choices.”  For example, “This is Bill. Bill is on the Internet. Bill sees something that offends him. Bill moves on. Bill is smart. Be Like Bill.” I guess that is what happens when I see a post from a familiar anti-biosolids activists.

Maile and I were discussing viral internet postings last week.  I mentioned I had heard an interview on TED Radio Hour with internet marketer/blogger Seth Godin.  Godin’s website urges us to “Go make something happen,”  which I try to do every day, but with small effect. In his TED Radio Hour interview, What makes an idea go viral , Godin says that for ideas to go viral they need be “remarkable.” That is, the idea or product is so engaging that people are motivated to “remark” to family, friends and others about the idea. Hence, spontaneous person-to-person remarks make the idea go viral.

In our biosolids world, very few of us have the goal for our biosolids to be “remarkable,” because the remarks are usually of the wrong kinds, and they go viral for the wrong reasons.  That is what we need to change. We need to tell our “remarkable” stories, and we need positive viral results.

Maile and I mused over what it would take for the biosolids profession to tell “remarkable” stories. This is when Maile told me about crickets. A Portland based company, Cricket Flours, poses on its website the question: “Are You Ready for Crickets? Natural, sustainable, protein,” and goes on to explain “Cricket Flours LLC was founded in 2014 to provide an environmentally friendly and sustainable source of protein and nutrition for the world’s expanding population.”

But it is a Brooklyn NY company using cricket flour that introduced a unique communication approach, with a useful lesson for biosolids. Exo Protein is a start-up enterprise founded in 2013 by two Brown University graduates who, following a lecture on sustainable business, came up with the idea of manufacturing high protein nutrition bars using cricket flour.   The company is pumping along happily with their Exo Cricket Protein Bar when it unexpectedly starts getting nasty posts on its comment page. The good folks at Exo Protein were stunned.  As the company explains on its website: “We’ve also received our share of hate mail, from internet trolls to the flat-out squeamish. Some of these comments are simply too great to keep to ourselves. Check out the best (worst?) below. And to all of them we say: Haters Gonna Hate.”

“Haters Gonna Hate” is a meme. According to LifeWire:'Haters gonna hate' is an expression of personal pride and individuality. It means 'I'm just going to ignore the cruel and hateful comments of other people'. The 'haters gonna hate' expression is commonly used when a person (or animal) performs some kind of public strutting move that demonstrates individuality, and that person wants to shout, 'I don't care what other people think!'

If there is a meme that biosolids managers might be able to embrace for themselves, when confronted by media and local opposition, it is “haters gonna hate.”

Exo Protein’s hate comments, which they posted bravely on its website, included these two: “You “environmentally conscious” morons can eat bugs and #$%$ for all I care” and “How much longer before these idiots try to get us to eat our own #$%$?“.

We have here a literary conflation of icky bugs and poop. I wasn’t expecting this, but it struck a chord. 

I was reminded of a paper I presented at the 1998 WEF RBC Opening General Session, “The Horror, Humor and Heroes of Biosolids.” I opened up with a news article that featured a very special biosolids utilization outlet: hamburgers.  Fortunately, Google has archived the article from World Weekly News: The World’s Only Reliable News. You can read it for yourself. “Potty Patties: Hamburgers made from raw sewage are a big hit in Japan.” 

Back in 1998 I had tracked down and reported on the very, very small kernel of truth behind this story. Here is what I wrote: “The Japanese actually did undertake this research!  Mr. Tomozane, in an email message to me, writes ‘We have now completed the project of creating artificial meat from the sludge left over after waste water treatment and have a real product.  We have both dried out meat for immediate usage and we also preserve the meat by storing it in vacuum packs… We have further plans to investigate and research into new areas of using extracted protein for valid purposes.’ “

To my delight, the “urban legend” of sewage to hamburger did not die in 1998.  In 2011, we read:  Japanese scientist creates 'poop burger'? Surely not: “A Japanese scientist reportedly finds a way to do something ecologically useful: create artificial meat from sewage containing feces. But doesn't the story smell just a little funny?”  This comes complete with a YouTube video Solution to the Global Food Crisis - Let them eat TURD BURGERS.

I think this article is further evidence that our culture is turning the corner on its relationship to poop management.

Have you seen the short film Gut Hack?  Biohacker Josiah Zayner has been plagued by gastrointestinal pain: “Rather than swigging some Pepto-Bismol, Zayner has other ideas, searching for someone ‘hopefully really athletic and attractive’ to swap out bacteria with to see if it’ll improve his health.”   He swallowed home-made capsules of donated feces. His gut microbiome was transformed, and he was restored to good gastrointestinal health.

Popular culture is embracing the gut microbiome and its effect on our health. A Johns Hopkins website describes Fecal transplantation (or bacteriotherapy):“This is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract for the purpose of treating recurrent C. difficile colitis.”   We learn from the Open Biome website aboutFecal Microbiota Transplantation, and we learn How to Own Your Gut Bacteria and Fix Leaky Gut Syndrome. Even more extreme, in line with “Gut Hack,” we can learn The Power of Poop, with “DIY Fecal Transplants at Home.” At home?!

I sense from the “meme” interest in this topic that we may be witnessing in society decreasing “fecaphobia,” broadening interest in the cycle of wastewater, and newly positive associations with “germs.” AsapSCIENCE, with funding by SquareSpace  (coincidentally MABA’s new website host) produced this supportive description of The Poop Cycle.  I can tell you from personal experience how exciting it was to receive my gut microbe profile from American Gut; I have 13 times more organisms of the genus Prevotella than is typical in the U.S.  NYC Radiolab, which has done the biosolids industry great service by producing two programs: Poop Train (9/24/2013)  and The Sludge at the Bottom of the Sea (11/13/2013), this past week featured a story, Funky Hand Jive, describing the transmission of microbes by handshakes.

Radiolab’s special guest for this “handshake” show was astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Dr. Tyson is one of the nation’s most recognized science popularizer, filling holes left by Carl Sagan’s death and David Attenborough’s age. The 1 May 2017 issue of Chemical and Engineering News acknowledged Dr. Tyson’s importance, in a commentary by the 2017 American Chemical Society president Allison A. Campbell, Communicating science effectively to the public. Her concern, reflecting on the March for Science demonstrations this past Earth Day, was that “Social media, predominant as they are today, amplify the perceived risks of communicating with the nonscientific public.” She urged us to move past the perceived risk and instead to commit to communicating our science behind our work. She suggested we adopt four principles: understand the audience, tell good stories, speak plainly, and play the long game.

We certainly have a way to go, as we prefer to talk to ourselves, tell complicated stories, use jargon, and worry about tomorrow’s news articles.

And, we resist being remarkable.  I don’t have a good answer yet on the kind of “remarkable” meme that would spark a positive, viral interest in biosolids recycling. It might have elements of ‘Haters Gonna Hate’ and ‘Gut Hack’, but I would prefer it come from the kind of work that is done in support of compost by Kiss the Ground, which celebrates the role of microbes in the soil-food web and in building soil health.

I spoke to Charlotte’s Jean Creech last week. She said she was taking the cue from California Association of Sanitation Agencies and Northwest Biosolids to turn the conversation away from nutrients, regulations and risk and toward soil health. This is the foundational “long game” issue, and we can focus on good results, not on technologies. We need to keep our audience in mind, or in this case, the MEME IN MIND.