So near and yet so far.
The library is late this month because I am just getting back and settled from our annual regional Biofest conference. It was a great meeting this year with a wide variety of speakers. We heard about the critical link between soils and civilization from David Montgomery, author of Dirt: Erosion of Civilization and about types of haul trucks from Tony Chiras, haul manager for King County biosolids. We heard about actual improvement in California, expansion of local use in Chicago, and how Tacoma sold out of product for over a month.
All of this confirms the benefits and critical nature of what we do. Perhaps the most powerful session was the Walk the Talk session where speakers included our Washington State Regulator, a scientist (me), the lead of Silvis, a land application firm from British Columbia, and a program manager from Oregon. The common thread across all of these presentations was that program managers need to ‘own’ their programs- take pride in their work and their product and brag about this far and wide in order for us- regulators, scientists and consultants to work with them. This was all the more powerful and pertinent because of the biosolids disaster currently taking place in British Columbia. If you don’t look at the NBMA biosolids in the news emails and don’t have a google alert system in place, just have a glance at the website: http://www.biosolidsbc.com/.
Problems of political opposition have arisen in British Columbia. A low bid contract to a composting operation that was trying to fly under the radar, in combination with regulations that are strict in terms of contaminants but silent in terms of public outreach requirements, in combination with a history of silence and lack of public engagement by the majority of generators in the province has resulted in a veritable ‘shit storm’. As a result of this crisis, the Ministers in British Columbia have recently met and recommended that all biosolids be pyrolyzed instead of directly land applied. This library is my attempt to provide tools to address this type of crisis and hopefully to prevent it from ever occurring.
The first article is a summary of risks and benefits associated with land application written awhile back by a Canadian. The author presents a well- balanced summary of the risks and benefits, his concluding paragraph is presented in the library. This is a fast and easy read and shows that not everyone north of the border is sure that beneficial use of biosolids will lead to the end of civilization as we know it. It also suggests that some outreach and communication could go along way. Instead of outreach and communication- or at least loud, proud and sufficient outreach and communication, the issue of biosolids use in BC has ended up in the realm of risk and fear.
The second article in the library is all about our current culture of fear and how that culture leads people to do things that actually increase rather than decrease their risks. The authors use the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers as a means to frame this. They provide and excellent and helpful discussion that includes examples of how risk perception and fear take hold and steps and communication tools that acknowledge risk but attempt to combat irrational fears.
From this we go to biosolids- first focusing on how the media has covered biosolids. The authors focus on three states, CA, FL and VA, over a 10 year period. They picked these states because of high levels of controversy over land application programs. Negative press outnumbered positive press by about 3:1. This starts with how biosolids are defined- loosely and typically with a negative context. They also provide data on who is interviewed and how the issues are framed. They note that environmental considerations and quotes from individuals are less common and provide potential tools, starting with clearer definitions, on how to provide positive press coverage. One way to do this is to market your product effectively to end users and stakeholders.
The last two articles focus on marketing. The first is a survey of vegetable growers in New Jersey on whether they would use biosolids. The answer is generally ‘no’ but rational and reasons are provided. Most are concerned not about the environment or risk, although there is a discussion of metals, but rather about marketing their products. In order to have biosolids used beneficially, you have to figure out who will use them and why. You need a market base. This base can then become your publicity.
That you need a market base is brought home by the last article It is actually a chapter in a dissertation. Kristen McIvor got her PhD with me in 2011 and now runs the community garden program in Tacoma, WA. She surveyed gardeners in Seattle and Tacoma as well as plotted who got biosolids based products in each region and how much. She found that with a product available and accessible to the gardening public, awareness and support of biosolids increased. Without that, there was general ignorance of biosolids. The maps tell the whole story here.
In other words, people do not have to start out facing biosolids with the lens of fear and risk. In a vacuum however, this is the lens that we typically use. Talking about, showing and owning a product or a program can be effective tools to build programs. Not everyone has to use or like your product. They just have to realize that this is one thing that they don’t have to waste time and energy worrying about. If you can accomplish this, the benefits of the biosolids will find enough loyal customers for you.